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Trump Imposes Punitive New Sanctions Against North Korea: Danger for Inter-Korean Détente?

US President Donald Trump announced last Friday that the US Treasury Department (finance ministry in other countries) is now imposing harsher new sanctions against North Korea, specifically targeting the country’s shipping and trading companies. At the end of his rambling speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference he touted the sanctions: “North Korea, we imposed today the heaviest sanctions ever imposed by our country before. And frankly, hopefully something positive can happen. . .”
In its latest step to heighten its ‘economic warfare’ against North Korea, the US government imposed sanctions against 27 entities and 28 vessels either registered or flagged in several countries, including North Korea, China and Singapore. At the same time, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the US is “aggressively targeting all illicit avenues used by North Korea to evade sanctions, including taking decisive action to block vessels, shipping companies, and entities across the globe that work on North Korea’s behalf.” Sixteen North Korean shipping companies were sanctioned. Nine international shipping companies and nine vessels were included in the US sanctions list, including China-based shipping companies, which had previously revealed potentially suspicious activity. The US government also labeled a Taiwanese citizen, who has coordinated North Korean coal exports with a Russia-based North Korean broker. According to the Treasury Department, this individual has a record of sanctions evasion activities.
The US Treasury Department, along with the State Department and the US Coast Guard has warned the public of significant sanctions they could face if they help to enable any shipments of goods to and from North Korea. These agencies also alerted relevant industries of North Korea’s deceptive shipping practices. Munchin said pointedly: “The President has made it clear to companies worldwide that if they choose to help fund North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, they will not do business with the United States.” North Korea has been known to falsify and conceal information displayed on North Korean vessels and conduct ship-to-ship transfers currently prohibited by the United Nations. It seems that the US is determined to tighten the ‘economic’ noose around North Korea. And whereas Trump has frequently been dismissive of the United Nations, in the case of sanctions, the UN does have a vital role to play.
The US administration has also made it amply clear that while the UN/US sanctions solely focus on “illicit maritime activity”, they are part and parcel of the ‘maximum pressure campaign’ aimed at ‘denuclearization’. The basic point of these sanctions is not just to punish the rogue nation, but to raise “the cost of doing business with North Korea” for other countries. A US official pointed out: “The President is clearly frustrated, and rightly so, over efforts that have failed in the past and also over the uptick in testing and the advancements we have seen in the North Korean programme in the recent period of time and over the last couple of decades.” The sanctions announcement came while the President’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump was in South Korea for the closing days of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Ms. Trump, in spite of her inexperience, did a better job representing the United States than Vice President Pence. In the White House itself some staffers, including chief of staff, Gen.(retd.) John Kelly are very frustrated with her (and her husband Jared Kushner’s) role as advisers of the president.
According to Mnuchin, Ivanka Trump briefed South Korean President Moon Jae-in about the new US sanctions vis-à-vis North Korea. During a pre-dinner briefing with Moon, Ms. Trump said her visit was to “reaffirm our commitment to our maximum pressure campaign to ensure that the Korean Peninsula is denuclearized.” She added that discussions with South Korea would touch on “joint values and strategic cooperation as partners and allies.” During the dinner, President Moon said that the denuclearization dialogue and the inter-Korean dialogue on the Korean Peninsula cannot go separately, and this process should progress hand-in-hand, according to a spokesperson for the presidential Blue House in Seoul. Moon also said it is important for South Korea and the US to cooperate closely. He underlined that North Korea’s participation in the Olympics was an “opportunity” for inter-Korean dialogue, which had “led to lowering of tensions on the peninsula and an improvement in inter-Korean relations.” For this he thanked President Trump for his strong support.
Tougher sanctions may jeopardize the latest détente between the two Koreas, illustrated by the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics in the South, amid preparations for talks about a possible summit between North Korea’s Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. North Korea has condemned the harsh US sanctions, but at the same time signaled its readiness for direct talks with the US. China has in the meantime protested against the ‘unilateral’ US sanctions.
There is no doubt that North Korea is now under intense economic pressure. Mnuchin said the number of sanctions steps taken by the US against Pyongyang since 2005 was now 450 with approximately half imposed in the last year. Moreover, virtually all shipping currently being used by North Korea was now under sanction. Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, told reporters sanctions already had affected North Korea’s weapons programmes and this was reflected by the lengths North Korea was going to try to evade sanctions. Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington think-tank “Foundation for the Defence of Democracies” said the new US move was “the largest tranche of DPRK [North Korea] sanctions” released by the Treasury Depertment. “The only thing missing here today is action against Chinese banks,” he added, “We know they continue to undermine our efforts to isolate North Korea.” In order to be effective, Mnuchin did not rule out the prospect of US personnel boarding and inspecting North Korean ships.
In the past, the United States has gone after ships suspected of transporting missiles and nuclear proliferation material. But stopping vessels suspected of carrying commercial goods would be a major build up in the pressure campaign against Pyongyang. “That goes into the realm of an economic blockade,” said Abraham M. Denmark, a former Pentagon official and currently director of the Asia programme at the “Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars”. “ It would be moving beyond proliferation and going after things that sustain North Korea’s lifeline.” He predicted that such a move will meet resistance from China and Russia. If Chinese and Russian ships are involved, armed confrontation could result. According to Evan S. Medeiros, an Asia director in the National Security Council during the Obama administration, the Trump administration “is walking right up to the line of what’s permissible under international law to aggressively increase the pressure on North Korea.”
Since North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-Un is slowly but certainly being pushed to the corner, what can be his options? Has it reached the stage where Kim and his closest advisers believe that they must act and take the initiative because they genuinely feel and believe that the US is threatening the regime’s survival [not necessarily that of the country itself]. Any action must be carefully weighed in the balance, since a massive US/South Korean retaliation is certain.
There is also a great deal of uncertainty about possible US actions given President Donald Trump’s volatile nature. Last August, he threatened to go beyond sanctions by bringing “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” although some members of his administration – foremost the secretaries of state and defence – repeatedly underlined that the US prefers a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Even now, Trump has uttered a dire warning: “If the sanctions don’t work, we’ll have to go phase two”. “Phase two may be a very rough thing, may be very, very unfortunate for the world. But hopefully the sanctions will work.” Under Trump, many experts see an immanent danger of unnecessary war with North Korea, especially since he has shown symptoms of mental impairment.
Bandy X. Lee (professor of clinical psychiatry at Yale) and Jeffry D. Sachs (professor of sustainable development and health policy at Columbia) have brilliantly summed up the present danger posed by Trump: “In the view of many professional psychologists and psychiatrists, Trump is not merely a bully, a showman, and a liar; he is more likely a mentally impaired individual who is impulsive, aggressive, and relentlessly driven to manipulate and blame others.” Furthermore, Trump is obviously “often masking intolerable feelings of powerlessness, inadequacy, and an overwhelming need for approval that can curdle into violent destructiveness under pressure.” Since the US has the world’s most powerful military, he would be “able to wreak murderous mayhem”. These academics, therefore, conclude that the world is in a period of great danger. They plead that the US Congress should clearly and explicitly reassert its constitutional authority and move urgently to curtail Trump’s unilateral ability to launch a war, especially a nuclear war.

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