Trump announces new sanctions against North Korea, but China's role remains key

President Trump announced Thursday a new round of sanctions against North Korea as he struggles to confront that country’s determination to build a nuclear arsenal.

After threatening earlier this week to “totally destroy” North Korea if it uses its nuclear weaponry against U.S. territory or allies, Trump told reporters he was issuing a new executive order, adding more sanctions to those that the United States and allies already have imposed.

He said the measures would target North Korea's textiles, fishing industry and shipping. Sanctions against those industries are already in place, so it was not clear what was different about the additional ones.

“The brutal North Korean regime does not respect its own citizens or the sovereignty of other nations,” Trump said. “Our new executive order will cut off sources of revenue that fund North Korea's efforts to develop the deadliest weapons known to humankind.’

Under the executive order, the U.S. Treasury Department will be able to blacklist any businesses and individuals trading or doing financial work with North Korea.

That could force other nations and foreign businesses to make a choice: "Do business with the United States ... or the lawless regime" of North Korea,” Trump said.

He repeated that he wants nothing less than “a complete denuclearization of North Korea.” Many observers call that standard all but impossible, given Pyongyang's progress to date.

Trump, on the margins of the annual United Nations General Assembly, also met Thursday with the presidents of Japan and South Korea, the two neighbors of North Korea with the most at stake in the showdown.

Japan’s President Shinzo Abe praised Trump’s willingness to push North Korea to the negotiating table, adding that “dialogue for the sake of dialogue would not produce anything.” Abe, who spent a weekend at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in February, repeatedly referred to Trump as “Donald.”

“The key at this moment is to exercise and apply pressure against North Korea in a robust manner,” Abe said. “And together with Donald we have been successfully demonstrating our strong will to exercise pressure against North Korea.”

Trump, asked by a reporter if diplomatic talks with North Korea were still possible, said, “Why not?”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in also voiced concerns about North Korea’s behavior but he, too, has advocated diplomacy and dialogue, not the military option that Trump at times suggests he is considering. Most experts think a military response to North Korea could lead to catastrophic violence against the southern half of the peninsula, where thousands of American troops are stationed.

“North Korea has continued to make provocations, and this is extremely deplorable and this has angered both me and our people,” Moon said, adding he was grateful for the United States’ firm response.

Trump took the opportunity to reiterate his opposition to the U.S. trade deal with South Korea, which he said favored Seoul. Experts have said it is the wrong time to call the deal into question given tensions with North Korea.

“But our real focus will be on the military and our relationship with South Korea, which is excellent,” Trump said.

Thus far, sanctions have failed to deter North Korea. The regime launched two missiles within two months, and completed an underground test of what was thought to be a hydrogen bomb, its most powerful yet. In all, the country has conducted six nuclear tests.

It has threatened Japan, South Korea and the U.S. territory of Guam, as well as the continental U.S. Trump has responded with equally bellicose language, threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea.

Kim also fired two mid-range missiles over one of Japan’s northern islands, both landing in the ocean

Few diplomats or arms control experts foresee Kim abandoning his nuclear arsenal — now estimated to include 20 to 60 bombs. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called on the country to stop testing ballistic missiles as a confidence-building measure to allow diplomacy to proceed.

But Kim has shown no interest in such talks. Responding late Thursday to Trump, Kim said the American president was “deranged,” a "rogue" and a "gangster" who would "pay dearly" for his insults to North Korea, according to the North Korean state news agency.

Earlier this week, Trump called Kim a “rocket man” on a “suicide mission.”

The Trump administration succeeded in securing unanimous approval at the U.N. Security Council for sanctions against North Korea in August and again in September that target more than a third of the country’s income.

Mnuchin said the sanctions that Trump authorized Thursday were stronger because they would target any transaction with North Korea and anyone who facilitated such transaction.

“The objective is for them to give up their ballistic weapons,” he said, adding he had no timeline for when China’s banking measures might have an impact.

And he defended sanctions against criticism that they have been ineffective. Many countries, especially Russia and China and some African nations, have found ways around them.

“I don’t think other sanctions have failed,” Mnuchin said.

Many experts agree that sanctions are a better path than military action.

“New Trump administration sanctions against North Korea a smart move, raising cost to Pyongyang for its nuke programs,” tweeted Nicholas Burns, a former State Department official in Democratic and Republic administrations and frequent critic of Trump.

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska who is also often critical of the administration, said: “The United States is an economic and military superpower, and trade is an effective weapon.”

Potentially significant was Trump’s claim that China had agreed to restrict North Korea’s access to its banking system. China is North Korea’s chief ally and responsible for 90% of its trade. The Trump administration has repeatedly sought Beijing’s cooperation in enforcing sanctions, but China is nervous about causing the government in North Korea to collapse because it might trigger a refugee crisis or broader instability.

However, there were questions about whether China had actually agreed to what Trump suggested, and the White House would not go into detail.

"Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin [of Treasury] and People’s Bank of China [Gov. Zhou Xiaochuan] had a productive meeting this morning," said White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah.

China has previously agreed to enforce sanctions against North Korea, only to later pull back.

Richard Nephew, a sanctions expert in the Obama administration, said the new measures represented a "fairly sizable escalation" in pressure against North Korea. But he said the key will be if the U.S. begins using the new powers to sanction Chinese banks that deal with North Korea.

"This is, in my view, the potential start of a process that could go slowly or swiftly, but it is certain that no decision has been made yet whether to actually hit [the] Chinese bank," Nephew said. "There is a general authority here to sanction exporters and importers, which is probably more likely to be used first than the finance thing [against banks.]”

Already, the U.S. and the U.N. have imposed tough economic sanctions against North Korea that eat away at its export income, imports and revenue from workers it sends overseas. But none of those measures has curbed efforts by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to develop intercontinental missiles capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the United States.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

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