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Why Trump’s new North Korea sanctions matter

Hint: It’s another sign of the White House’s emerging strategy for trying to resolve its nuclear standoff.

Conservatives Rally Together At Annual CPAC Gathering
President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on February 23, 2018, in National Harbor, Maryland. 
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump used a high-profile speech Friday morning to attack the media, rehash his surprise Electoral College win, promise to build his controversial border wall, and lead a crowd of conservative political activists in chants of, “Lock her up.”

Then, near the very end of his remarks, Trump casually said he was targeting North Korea with what he called the “heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country before.” The sanctions target dozens of ships, shipping companies, and other firms that allegedly help Pyongyang fund its nuclear weapons and missiles programs.

The new sanctions are noteworthy for two reasons. First, they’re carefully designed to prevent North Korea from illicitly selling goods at sea, one of Pyongyang’s last steady sources of income. Second, they illustrate the White House’s emerging strategy for trying to resolve its nuclear standoff with North Korea through direct talks with Pyongyang as well as economic measures designed to hobble the regime of Kim Jong Un.

The first signs of the new approach came two weeks ago, when Vice President Mike Pence scheduled a secret meeting with high-level North Korean officials. Pyongyang canceled the meeting just hours ahead of the gathering, but Pence made clear that the administration was still open to talks.

“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” he told the Washington Post on February 11, one day after the canceled chat with North Korea. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

These latest sanctions are part of the “pressure” part: starving North Korea of the resources it needs to keep improving the weapons it has and develop the weapons it wants. North Korea avoids previously imposed sanctions by illicitly trading with countries while at sea instead of over land borders. (Usually, North Korea’s ships dock in foreign ports to unload exports like coal, iron, and seafood.) But the new measures aim to stop that.

“This will significantly hinder the Kim regime’s capacity to conduct evasive maritime activities that facilitate illicit coal and fuel transports, and erode its abilities to ship goods through international waters,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Screenshot of intelligence photo of North Korea trading at sea.
US Department of the Treasury

Maybe, but experts aren’t sure the sanctions will go far enough to change Kim’s behavior, in part because they don’t really target China.

“The administration’s focus on shipping and trading companies is a proper response to recent evidence of North Korean ships transferring goods at sea in order to evade detection,” Bruce Klingner, a North Korea expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote on Friday. “But the strategy seems misplaced, since it is a reactive game of maritime whack-a-mole rather than actively targeting the more readily identifiable financial backers. Trump must turn up the heat on Beijing by going after complicit Chinese banks.”

The other problem is that Trump’s patience may soon run out, raising the real prospect of a devastating war with North Korea.

“If the sanctions don’t work we’ll have to go to Phase 2,” Trump said during an afternoon press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “Phase 2 may be a very rough thing. May be very, very unfortunate for the world.”

North Korea is expert at avoiding sanctions

Here’s the main reason the new sanctions may not work: The US wants to stop North Korea from trading with other countries, but other countries still want to continue trading with North Korea.

Take Russia. Last December, Reuters reported that Russian tankers have transferred fuel to North Korean ships at sea at least three times in defiance of United Nations rules. And last year, at least eight North Korean ships carrying fuel sailed from Russia to North Korea despite officially declaring that they were headed to other destinations. While there isn’t definitive evidence that those ships violated international law, experts say the activity bore classic signs of sanction evasion tactics.

Russia is far from alone. As my colleague Zeeshan Aleem noted, a December 2017 report from the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank focused on nuclear nonproliferation, found that a whopping 49 countries have violated UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea between March 2014 and September 2017.

Drawing on UN data, the study found that countries ranging from Angola to Germany have ignored measures banning economic activity and military ties with Pyongyang. A number of countries, including Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany, India, Iran, Russia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates participated in banned financial transactions and other business activities with North Korea.

The report didn’t indicate the exact dates of these violations, so it’s unclear if the total number has declined since the Trump administration took office in January.

But the sheer number of countries that have been willing to flout UN sanctions reveals the limits of Trump’s economic pressure strategy. While almost all UN members pay lip service to the notion that they’re following the letter of international law, far fewer are actually sticking to those pledges. And that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.

There’s still a small chance of a diplomatic breakthrough of sorts on the sidelines of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Both the United States and North Korea will have delegations at the closing ceremonies on February 25. It’s possible the group’s members could discuss a possible way forward.

It’s unclear if that face-to-face will happen. But if it does, the latest sanctions could make the discussion a little more awkward.