'Maximum pressure': Trump sanctions North Korea, China after state visit

FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2017, file photo, a man watches a TV screen showing U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, during a news program at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea. With all the verbal barbs flying between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump these days, China’s decision to send its most senior official to North Korea in more than two years could be a welcome opportunity to defuse the growing tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

President Donald Trump ratcheted up his administration's "maximum pressure campaign" this week by re-designating North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism and imposing new economic sanctions on four Chinese shipping companies and over a dozen North Korean entities and shipping vessels. The timing of the penalties is significant, falling on the heels of Trump's visit to Beijing and a high-level Chinese visit to Pyongyang.

The new sanctions, announced by the Treasury Department on Tuesday singled out entities that previously avoided being targeted by the U.S., the shipping vessels and shipping companies that were able to transit goods to and from North Korea, providing a critical economic lifeline.

Three of the Chinese companies, the Treasury reported, exported approximately $650 million worth of goods to North Korea and imported more than $100 million worth of goods from North Korea during the first eight months of the year. The products included notebook computers as well as raw coal, iron, lead, zinc, and silver.

On Monday, President Donald Trump his decision to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism "a very critical step" in pursuit of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. "This will be going on over the next two weeks. It will be the highest level of sanctions by the time it's finished over a two-week period," Trump said during a Monday cabinet meeting.

Members of the Trump administration largely downplayed the timing of the announcements. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that the timing was merely procedural. But it comes one week after Trump's return from a 12-day visit to Asia where he was focused on working with allies in Pacific to curtail North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The announcements also fall just one day after a Chinese special envoy returned from high-level talks in North Korea.

White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah told Sinclair Broadcast Group on Monday that "there will be additional sanctions in the future, from the Department of Treasury and elsewhere." He further stressed that the administration is looking to use every tool it has to increase the pressure on North Korea.

One of those tools is leveraging the U.S. relationship with China and the Chinese relationship with North Korea to squeeze and isolate the Kim Jong-un regime. "There are limits to what the United States can do," he said. "We need to rely on other countries, particularly China to increase pressure on North Korea."

During his stop in Beijing earlier this month, Trump held extensive meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korea's strongest remaining trade and diplomatic partner. Trump and Xi maintained their friendly demeanor during public appearances, but according to reports, Trump was pressing Xi to take tougher measures toward North Korea behind closed doors, including fully suspending oil shipments.

Shortly after Trump's visit, China sent a special envoy to North Korea, Song Tao, the most senior Chinese official to visit Pyongyang in two years.

On Twitter, President Trump touted the state visit as "a big move," saying, "we'll see what happens!"

While some hoped that Chinese delegation could begin to explore a new approach to North Korea after months of intensive pressure from Washington, the news reports following the visit signaled a more disappointing outcome.

Chinese state media was relatively quiet about the meetings, reporting that the two nations discussed "the Korean Peninsula issue" and agreed to "push forward relations."

South Korean press reported that the envoy "seems to have been snubbed" by Kim Jong-Un, who reportedly did not personally meet with the Chinese delegation, though he did send high-ranking Communist Party officials.

Based on the Trump administration's actions this week and planned measures over the coming weeks, it does not appear the Chinese delegation was able to influence North Korea, a signal that China potentially lacks influence or needs a greater incentive to cut off ties with Pyongyang.

Former Treasury official and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Anthony Ruggiero explained that if the two nations had made progress, "we likely would not be seeing these sanctions rolled out."

He continued that after the Asia trip, the Trump administration was likely waiting to see if there were signs of diplomatic progress. "You could see the reasoning to hold some of these sanctions back," he said, "but if there is no movement on the diplomatic side, then there's really no reason to hold them back."

The decision to implement the new sanctions and re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism is likely to resonate with China and other nations who continue to maintain relations with Pyongyang. It also follows the diplomatic path the administration laid out beginning in September when Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced a harsh new set of North Korean economic sanctions.

"They can choose to do business with the United States or with North Korea, but not both," Mnuchin said referring to members of the international financial community.

Putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism has been described as largely symbolic, but on Monday Secretary of State Tillerson said the designation also may "disrupt and dissuade some third parties" who are currently involved with North Korea.

"It's going to make it more difficult for countries to justify continuing their relationship with North Korea," Ruggiero said. Between Iran, Syria, Sudan and now North Korea, "it's hard to justify doing business with any of them."

The new sanctions that target third parties, namely Chinese shipping companies, vessels and an industrial company, also speak to the Trump administration's willingness to take a different approach than previous administrations.

"We’ve seen two decades ... of policy that started under Bill Clinton's administration that hasn't worked," Raj Shah stressed. "We obviously need a new posture and a new policy."

The new U.S. posture, he said, is evidenced by two UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea that were passed under Trump and commitments by twenty nations to curb or entirely cut off economic relations with North Korea.

"Twenty countries taking additional steps to cut off political and economic ties to North Korea is no small feat," Shah noted, adding that the administration will continue working with other nations to exert maximum pressure on Pyongyang.

In recent months, China has taken steps to further curb fuel exports to North Korea and implement existing sanctions. The Philippines announced in September that it was taking steps to suspend trade with North Korea. Singapore made a similar announcement. Malaysia, which was locked in a diplomatic standoff with North Korea after the February assassination of Kim Jong-un's half-brother in the Kuala Lumpur airport, has also taken steps to isolate Pyongyang.

Part of the impetus to turn up the heat on the handful of nations that maintain normalized relations with North Korea came from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). In September, Gardner sent letters to twenty nations and China urging those governments to "immediately cease all official diplomatic and economic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), including immediately closing all of your diplomatic facilities in the DPRK."

Ambassadors to the U.S. from Brazil, the United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sweden, and Vietnam all received a letter and the message that their cooperation was critical to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

Gardner has been working alongside the Trump administration and prior to the president's Asia trip discussed a piece of legislation he drafted calling for a "global pressure campaign" against the North Korean regime. The bill calls on the Secretary of State to cut off U.S. assistance to any nation that is not cooperating with the United States to isolate the North Korean regime. It would also bill would also impose U.S. sanctions on China's ten largest companies engaged in trade with North Korea—four of which were sanctioned by the Treasury Department on Tuesday.

There is some hope that the latest actions by the Trump administration will force China and other nations to weigh the benefits of continuing to engage in trade or diplomacy with North Korea.

"I certainly hope that the administration learned in their trip to Beijing that the Chinese are not going to take these actions on their own," Ruggiero said. "That they're going to need to be pushed a little bit to take action against their own nationals."

There are more shipping entities that could be targeted and the Chinese banks that facilitate financial transactions with North Korea are also potentially ripe targets, but the Tuesday announcement may only be the first step in what President Trump said will unfold over the coming two weeks.

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