Uncle Sam ups pressure, waves sticks again at North Korea

By Cheng Xiaohe Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/27 21:08:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In his recent visit to Japan, US Vice President Mike Pence announced that his government will soon take "the toughest and most aggressive" economic sanctions against North Korea. After the dust surrounding an aborted Pence-Kim Yo-jong meeting at the Pyeongchang Olympics settled, the US government slapped the largest-ever sanctions against North Korea.

The action targeted one individual, 27 entities and 28 vessels located, registered or flagged in North Korea, China, Singapore, Marchall Islands, Tanzania, Panama and Comoros. The main purpose of the newly added punitive actions is crystal clear: to hinder North Korea's capacity to "conduct evasive maritime activities that facilitate illicit coal and fuel transports, and erode its abilities to ship goods through international waters."

Obviously, this is an escalation of US pressure against North Korea and includes something quite unusual. First, the measures were announced against the background of ongoing inter-Korean rapprochement.

As the South Korea government is determined to bring North Korea to the negotiating table with carrots, the US waves sticks in an attempt to intimidate North Korea to enter denuclearization talks. These traditional allies South Korea and the US are seemingly not on the same page in dealing with North Korea. They are actually playing a double act, in which South Korea shows nicety and softness whereas the US assumes the role of tough guy. No matter how different the two nations' approaches toward North Korea, they share a common goal to nudge North Korea in the direction of denuclearization.

Second, the newly imposed sanctions are the largest-ever in terms of the number of sanctioned individuals, entities and vessels. Various US governments have adopted unilateral sanctions against North Korea since president George W. Bush issued Executive order EO13466 in June 2008. Through the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act in 2016 and the Korean Interdiction and Modernization of Sanctions Act in 2017, the US government has been tightening its grip on Pyongyang.

After coming to power, President Donald Trump has many times imposed unilateral sanctions against North Korea. But the US government has never put so many entities and vessels on its sanctions list as it did this time. The US government also expanded its secondary sanctions against third country citizens, companies and vessels.

By resorting to secondary sanctions, the US wanted to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, it could punish some individuals, companies and their ships involved in illegal trade with North Korea. On the other, it can intimidate other individuals and companies into complying with its unilateral sanctions and the UN Security Council's North Korea-related sanctions resolutions. Unfortunately, the secondary sanctions do not have a legal basis. The US has assumed the three roles of prosecutor, judge and police simultaneously and inevitably met strong opposition from China and other countries. The Chinese government has repeatedly made it clear that "the Chinese side firmly opposes the US imposing unilateral sanctions and 'long-arm jurisdiction' of Chinese entities or individuals in accordance with its domestic laws."

Third, the recent sanctions reveal that the US government has been paying more attention to the implementation of existing sanctions against North Korea. The US government is ready to seek tougher sanctions against North Korea to cope with the latter's new intercontinental missile or nuclear test.

It now focuses on making sanctions more effective and efficient. Obviously, as the US and other countries' governments introduced more unilateral sanctions against North Korea, coupled with UN Security Council sanctions, North Korea feels the increasing pain and its efforts to counter sanctions are intensifying. That's the basic reason we have heard more reports about the suspected ship-to-ship transfer of fuel and coal between North Korea and third countries' ships. To punish a large number of new entities and vessels, the US government could further increase the cost to North Korea's evasive activities and thus help reduce its money-making capability. More importantly, the US actions will not end here. Some analysts speculate that the US government may be mulling over expanding interceptions of ships suspected of violating sanctions in Asia-Pacific waters. 

Undoubtedly the newly announced US sanctions cannot scare North Korea away from its counter-sanctions endeavor, but will increase tension on the peninsula. North Korea already responded by claiming the new sanctions were an act of war. As Trump stepped up his warning that "if the sanctions don't work, we'll have to go phase two" and "Phase two may be very, very unfortunate for the world," we worry that the US and North Korea may fall back to their head-on confrontation. 

The author is associate professor, School of International Studies, Renmin University of China and a senior research fellow with the Pangoal Institute. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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