Trump unveils new sanctions targeting North Korea

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

President Trump on Thursday unveiled new economic sanctions targeting North Korea’s banking and trade partners and some of the country’s industries, but he left the door open to future dialogue with the Stalinist regime of Kim Jong Un.

“Our new executive order will cut off sources of revenue that fund North Korea’s efforts to develop the deadliest weapons known to humankind,” Trump told reporters. “In addition, what we will do is identify new industries — including textiles, fishing, IT, and manufacturing — that the Treasury Department can target with strong sanctions.”

The order empowers the Treasury Department to impose what are known as “secondary sanctions” that target banks and companies that do business with North Korea, a kind of bank shot that aims to tighten the vise on Kim’s ability to fund his nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“Foreign banks will face a clear choice: Do business with the U.S. or facilitate trade with the lawless regime in North Korea,” the president said.

Trump also praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his central bank’s directive to Chinese financial institutions to stop doing business with North Korea and its citizens, describing that decision as a “very bold move” that was “somewhat unexpected.” China historically accounts for the lion’s share of North Korea’s external banking and trade.

Trump’s announcement came as he began a working lunch with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly — showcasing a united front on the North Korean issue. Xi skipped the annual gathering, as he typically does.

Asked whether negotiations with Kim were still possible, Trump replied, “Why not?”

President Trump during a meeting with the South Korean president and the Japanese prime minister, Sept. 21, 2017. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

That appeared to be a departure from his position in late August, when he declared on Twitter, “Talking is not the answer.”

North Korea recently tested a nuclear weapon that it says is a hydrogen bomb and fired an intercontinental ballistic missile thought to be able to reach the U.S. mainland. But questions remain about the reliability of its guidance systems and whether it has devised the technology to prevent its warheads from burning up upon reentry into the atmosphere.

It’s not clear to what extent the new measures will change Kim’s behavior. U.S. experts say the country sees its weapons programs as an insurance policy to guarantee regime survival.

The order bars ships and aircraft from U.S. soil and ports within 180 days of being in North Korea. And it applies the same ban on vessels that engaged in ship-to-ship transfers with a vessel that visited North Korea. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declined to say how many ships and aircraft would be affected, but described such trade as “very significant.”

The president’s announcement came two days after he used his speech to world leaders assembled at the United Nations to warn that the United States will “totally destroy” North Korea if Washington is “forced to defend itself or its allies.”

“‘Rocket Man’ is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” Trump said in the address, using his new mocking moniker for Kim. North Korea responded that the president sounded like a barking dog.

Military action against North Korea could leave millions of dead. Kim’s military has South Korea’s capital, Seoul, in artillery range, and is thought to have stockpiled chemical and biological weapons. And recent missile tests have shown that its rockets could theoretically reach Tokyo. Still, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters on Monday that there were military options that might not put Seoul at grave risk. “But I will not go into details,” Mattis added.

A photo purportedly showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, celebrating a missile launch. (Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Washington has also been looking at a range of options for choking North Korea’s economy and undermining Kim’s regime, including efforts to increase the hermetic nation’s citizens’ ability to get information and entertainment from the outside world.

One challenge regarding sanctions, U.S. officials say, is how to hurt North Korea’s totalitarian government without overly punishing its citizens, who have coped with repeated famines.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters there were signs that the latest round of U.N. Security Council sanctions had started to bite.

“There are indications that there are shortages, of fuel in particular,” Tillerson said.

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