For years, North Korea has violated U.S. law and U.N. resolutions. Among its many infractions, it has continued its prohibited nuclear and missile programs; committed gross human rights violations; counterfeited U.S. currency and indulged in repeated acts of terrorism and acts of war.
Yet the United States has only half-heartedly addressed these violations. For example, the United States has sanctioned Burma, Belarus, Burundi, Congo, Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe for human rights violations, but the Obama administration has not yet sanctioned a single North Korean entity for human rights violations even two years after the U.N. Commission of Inquiry declared Pyongyang had committed “crimes against humanity.”
Rather than fully utilize existing authorities to target North Korean violators, the Obama administration has pulled its punches, perhaps due to concern over how Pyongyang would react when confronted, a desire to kick the crisis can down the road, or to save some measures to respond to the next North Korean violation.
The House of Representatives, led by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), had long pushed for stronger sanctions on Pyongyang. But congressional advocacy repeatedly bumped into administration apathy or resistance due to “delicate negotiations underway” at the United Nations.
But North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests, combined with swelling bipartisan congressional frustration with the Obama administration’s timid incrementalism, have changed the calculus.
Last month, Congress overwhelmingly approved the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act by votes of 418–2 and 96–0 in the House and Senate, respectively. The law closed loopholes, toughened measures, and provided new authorities. That Congress made enforcing some U.S. laws mandatory rather than discretionary reflected discomfiture with President Obama’s foot-dragging.
The United States already had extensive authorities to go after North Korean violators, particularly Executive Order 13687. Issued in January 2015, it allowed sanctioning an entity simply for being a member of the North Korean government. This removed concerns that, in some cases, revealing the cause for sanctioning an entity could reveal sensitive sources and methods.
Contrary to some predictions, the firm congressional action increased U.S. leverage on China in the United Nations. In that body, China had typically acted as North Korea’s lawyer, watering down punitive measures against its client. Suddenly Beijing, fueled also by its own frustration with Pyongyang’s defiance and provocations, became more receptive to the principled draft, knowing that the United States and its allies would impose their own stronger unilateral sanctions.
Although Beijing reportedly watered down the allied-proposed drafts, U.N. Resolution 2270 goes beyond previous resolutions. It increases financial sanctions, expands required inspections of North Korean cargo, and targets key exports.
Chinese businesses and banks had recently reduced their imports of North Korean resources and severed financial transactions with North Korean counterparts. It is unclear if the actions were directed by the central Chinese government or taken by the companies. In either case, it can be argued that the actions were triggered by concerns that the new U.S. law, which authorizes sanctions against secondary violators, could be applied to Chinese entities.
Concurrent with the announcement of the completed U.N. resolution, the Obama administration announced targeted financial measures against 17 additional North Korean entities, including the powerful National Defense Committee. Taken under authorities provided by existing Executive Orders 13382 and 13687, these actions, too, could have been implemented previously. The Treasury Department announcement referenced the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, which “strengthens and expands sanctions on North Korea.”
The Obama administration declared it is “committed to using these new authorities alongside other sanctions tools to increase the costs of North Korea’s destructive policy choices and to combat North Korea’s proliferation activities.” Let’s hope so.
The resolute U.S. and U.N. actions in turn spurred an announcement by the European Union that it is considering additional measures against North Korea to show solidarity with South Korea and Japan. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini commented, “There is scope for the European Union to adopt additional autonomous restrictive measures to complement and reinforce the new UN measures.”
During the eight weeks of U.N. debate, South Korean President Park Geun-hye stood up to Chinese pressure and economic blackmail by calling for bilateral discussions on U.S. deployment of the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea. Park also finally pulled the plug on the inter-Korean economic venture at Kaesong, which had failed to induce North Korean political and economic reform or moderate the regime’s belligerent behavior.
After the U.N. resolution passed, the South Korean National Assembly finally passed a North Korean human rights act after 11 years of debate. With elections approaching, the opposition progressive parties saw the political disadvantage of being perceived as continuing to defend Pyongyang. Seoul also said it will soon announce its own tougher unilateral sanctions on North Korea.
The Philippines announced it had impounded a North Korean freighter in compliance with the U.N. resolution. The freighter Jin Teng is one of 31 vessels operated by Ocean Maritime Management, which is named in the U.N. resolution as being “subject to the asset freeze.”
If fully implemented, these international steps will collectively increase pressure on North Korea. These actions may not induce Pyongyang to comply with its many pledges and U.N. requirements to denuclearize. But at the very least they will fulfill near-term objectives of enforcing laws, imposing penalties on those that violate them, and strengthening measures to constrain the import and proliferation of prohibited nuclear and missile technology.
That all of these measures could have been implemented years ago is testament to a collective lethargy, a multi-national reluctance to confront North Korean belligerence. Even today, some counsel caution for fear of how North Korea could respond to being held accountable for its transgressions. But just as sheepishness is contagious, so is fortitude to do the right thing. The United States and other nations should not shirk from their responsibility to stand up to those who would do us harm.
Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. He previously served as the CIA’s deputy division chief for Korea.
Photo: The U.N. Security Council votes to adopt a provisional agenda on the situation in the North Korea in December. Credit: U.S. Mission to the United Nations.