US president Donald Trump’s administration today announced sanctions against 27 shipping companies and 28 ships trading with North Korea, in an effort to ratchet up pressure on the regime to end its nuclear program.
The move to further starve the country of fuel and cash is a strong sign that the US will not join the Korean peninsula’s recent thaw. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent his sister to the Winter Olympics in the South and invited (paywall) South Korea’s president to talks in the North. The two countries have also engaged in some heady symbolism, combining their women’s ice hockey teams to play as a united Korea at the Games.
The sanctioned ships are reportedly involved in a complex effort to smuggle fuel to the North by handing it over in the ocean, evading UN sanctions on Pyongyang. The sanctioned entities are reportedly based in six countries, including China. It’s unclear, however, how exactly the US will enforce the sanctions, which could require intercepting ships at sea or installing a blockade. North Korea is likely to see those actions as acts of war.
Trump claimed the sanctions are the “heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country,” in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The claim couldn’t be immediately verified—the US Treasury called them the “largest North Korea-related sanctions tranche to date.”
Trump wasn’t especially effusive about the move, bringing it up almost as an afterthought at the end of his speech. “Hopefully something positive can happen,” he said.
Ken E. Gause, director of the international affairs group at CNA think tank, was doubtful that the move would get Pyongyang to change its mind. “North Koreans will feel the pinch. North Korea will cry foul. But [Kim Jong-un] will not change his calculus with respect to nuclear weapons. He sees them as vital to his own and the regime’s survival,” he wrote in an email. “Countries like China and Russia have strategic reasons for not wanting to see North Korea buckle under the sanctions.”
Pyongyang issued a withering statement earlier in the day:
Heather Timmons contributed reporting.