US targets Chinese, Russian entities funding North Korea’s nukes

The US Treasury Department announced new sanctions Tuesday targeting Chinese and Russian entities that help fund and facilitate North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Coupled with the United Nations Security Council resolution passed earlier this month, Tuesday’s sanctions are intended to further isolate the companies and individuals outside of North Korea that are providing key support to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

“As a result of today’s action, any property or interests in property of the designated persons in the possession or control of US persons or within the United States must be blocked, and US persons are generally prohibited from dealing with them,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.

Specifically, the sanctions are aimed at 16 entities and individuals that assist “already designated persons who support North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, deal in the North Korean energy trade, facilitate its exportation of workers, and enable sanctioned North Korean entities to access the US and international financial systems,” the Treasury Department said.

“Treasury will continue to increase pressure on North Korea by targeting those who support the advancement of nuclear and ballistic missile programs and isolating them from the American financial system,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said.

Chinese and Russian entities — including energy companies, coal and oil traders, labor exporters and facilitators of sanctions evasion — were listed as the primary targets of Tuesday’s sanctions.

Like the UN resolution passed earlier this month, the Treasury Department identified shutting down elements of North Korea’s coal trade as a priority. The coal industry generates more than $1 billion in revenue per year for Kim Jong Un’s regime, according to the US Treasury, and represents a significant part of the funding for Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs.

The latest round of US sanctions singles out three Chinese coal companies — Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Materials Co., Ltd. (“Zhicheng”), JinHou International Holding Co., Ltd. and Dandong Tianfu Trade Co., Ltd. — which were collectively responsible for importing nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of North Korean coal between 2013 and 2016.

The US Treasury concluded that these companies “have sold, supplied, transferred, or purchased coal or metal, directly or indirectly, from North Korea, and the revenue may have benefited the nuclear or ballistic missile programs.”

Moscow-based company Gefest-M LLC and its director, Russian national Ruben Kirakosyan, were also designated by the US Treasury for facilitating the sale of metals to a North Korean entity tied to the country’s missile program.

“It is unacceptable for individuals and companies in China, Russia and elsewhere to enable North Korea to generate income used to develop weapons of mass destruction and destabilize the region,” Mnuchin said. “We are taking actions consistent with UN sanctions to show that there are consequences for defying sanctions and providing support to North Korea and to deter this activity in the future.”

Whether these sanctions can help slow Pyongyang’s rapidly developing nuclear and missile programs or help pressure North Korea to the negotiating table remains to be seen — especially in light of the rogue nation’s recent claims that it has successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon.

While some experts believe it may have the technology, others caution that even if it doesn’t, North Korea should be taken at its word.

While the White House and US military officials still insist that all options are on the table when it comes to North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday that Pyongyang’s response to UN sanctions levied in July could be a reason for optimism.

Tillerson noted that “we have had no missile launches or provocative actions” since the unanimous adoption of a UN Security Council resolution sanctioning North Korea in July. He added that he was pleased “to see the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint that we have not seen in the past.”

“This is the beginning of the signal we have been looking for,” Tillerson said, noting that North Korea is ready to restrain its “provocative acts” and that “perhaps we’re seeing a pathway to, sometime in the near future, to having some dialogue.”

And despite concerns that time for a diplomatic solution may be running out, several analysts say that sanctions targeting the heart of North Korea’s missile funding should still play a key role in US strategy going forward.

“Sanctions against companies and individuals that facilitate North Korea’s sanctions evasion is the best way to address Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a former deputy director of the US Treasury Department and an expert in the use of targeted financial measures for Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“New sanctions should be part of a robust sanctions campaign that includes engaging those who continue business with North Korea and present a choice: continue that business or work with the United States — they cannot do both,” he told CNN.

Particularly when it comes to Russia, the sanctions are a warning, Ruggiero said.

“The Trump administration is sending a message to the Russian leadership to curb its activities with North Korea by targeting Russian companies and individuals for facilitating North Korea’s proliferation activities and purchase of commodities subject to US sanctions,” he said. “This is the second action against Russia following the sanctions in early June for similar activities.”

In May, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States will try to further stymie North Korean operations by punishing third parties that help Pyongyang skirt sanctions.

“It’s a pressure campaign that has a knob on it,” Tillerson told State Department employees at the time. “I’d say we’re at about dial setting five or six right now.”

The US has tried to turn up the heat with sanctions and tough talk in recent months amid escalating tensions with Pyongyang over its rapidly developing missile program.

However, Pyongyang has weathered years of sanctions in its quest for a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the US, and attempts to cut off its revenue streams have proven to be similar to a game of international whack-a-mole.

“This is a regime that’s really good at finding new, creative illicit ways to earn hard currency, and sometimes that’s coming up with new activities and sometimes it’s a matter of shifting geographic locations of those activities,” Sheena Greitens, a professor at the University of Missouri who has been studying North Korea’s illicit financial activities for the last 10 to 15 years, told CNN last month.

“If you wanted to try to pressure and contain North Korea’s ability to earn from these illicit activities, you’d have to also close off its ability to adapt,” she said.

North Korea has been accused of crimes such as hacking banks, selling weapons, dealing drugs, counterfeiting cash and even trafficking endangered species — operations that are believed to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars and are often disguised within licit trade operations.

That money helps pay for the country’s nuclear and missile programs, both of which Pyongyang believes it needs in order to deter any US-led attempt at regime change, experts say. North Korea’s nuclear aspirations have progressed forward rapidly despite sanctions, and Pyongyang has resisted any US attempts at negotiation that mandates de-nuclearization up front.

President Donald Trump has long called on China to put more pressure on North Korea — but ultimately, analysts say the US will have to convince China to not only target its own companies but to take comprehensive action that could disrupt the power balance in the region.

Beijing accounts for about 85% of Pyongyang’s imports, according to UN data. That’s a lifeline for the North Korean economy, one which prevents the US from really putting the squeeze on North Korea.

A Chinese government official said last month that China-North Korea trade was worth $2.6 billion in the first half of 2017, up about 10% over the same period last year.

But coal imports slumped by 75%, suggesting Beijing is gradually choking off North Korea’s biggest source of foreign currency.

Pyongyang’s reliance on Chinese entities also reveals an area of vulnerability, according to a recent study from C4ADS, a non-partisan Washington-based research group focused on exposing illicit trade networks.

“From 2013 to 2016, there were only 5,233 companies within China that either imported goods from, or exported goods to, North Korea. To put that number in perspective, as of 2016, 67,163 Chinese companies exported to South Korea,” the report said. “Targeting specific key nodes can have a disproportionate impact.”

Experts say Beijing’s seriousness about cracking down on its unruly neighbor may be the key to stopping Pyongyang’s illicit activities.

“It all comes down to China,” Ruggiero told CNN in an interview last month. “In the end it’s going to require going after Chinese banks and Chinese companies that are complicit in North Korea’s sanction evasion.”