President Donald Trump announced his administration has imposed “the heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country before” on North Korea during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday.
“Frankly, hopefully, something positive can happen,” he said.
Trump on sanctions President Donald Trump announces new sanctions of North Korea at CPAC on Feb. 23, 2018. (CNN Newsource)
The sanctions target 27 shipping and trading companies, 28 shipping vessels, and one individual, and administration officials say they are aimed at disrupting methods the North Korean regime has used to evade existing sanctions.
The U.S. is seeking similar designations for these entities from the United Nations Security Council as it attempts to halt dictator Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“It’s our very strong view, as the president will emphasize, that compliance with U.S. and U.N. sanctions is a national security imperative…. We will not hesitate to take action against those who do not,” a senior administration official told reporters on Friday morning.
Another official said the intent of the sanctions is to isolate North Korea and shut down illicit shipping.
“As North Korea’s tactics evolve, so will we,” the second official said, noting the importance of support the U.S. is receiving from allies like Japan and South Korea in dismantling illegal maritime networks.
A third official told reporters that sanctions will continue until Kim’s regime changes its behavior.
“We are determined through these efforts to increase the pressure on the North Korean regime and show Kim Jong Un there is no other path for him to take than denuclearization,” the official said.
The Department of Treasury, the Department of State, and the Coast Guard issued an advisory Friday alongside the sanctions alerting the world and the shipping industry to deceptive practices North Korea uses to conduct illegal trade and advance its nuclear agenda.
“The President has made it clear to companies worldwide that if they choose to help fund North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, they will not do business with the United States,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
Though President Trump only touched on the sanctions briefly at the end of his CPAC speech, he revisited the issue at a press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull later in the day.
"If the sanctions don’t work, we’ll have to go to phase two. Phase two maybe a very rough thing. May be very, very unfortunate for the world," he said.
The sanctions come as the president’s daughter arrives in South Korea to attend the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, a visit Ivanka Trump said is also intended to ramp up pressure on Kim’s regime. North Korea’s participation in the games has helped advance dialogue between the two Koreas, according to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but Vice President Mike Pence did not meet with the North Korean delegation when he attended the opening ceremony and Trump is not expected to either.
Sebastian Gorka, a former aide to the president, told Sinclair it is “not a good sign” that North Korea called off a tentative meeting with Pence, and he said the new unilateral sanctions are in part the result of China failing to uphold its commitments.
“I think it’s very clear that the president has very high expectations that Beijing will be part of the solution,” he said.
Gorka accused China of playing a “Janus-faced role” in negotiations because it has in the past seen North Korea as a valuable “buffer state” against U.S. allies, and he suggested that calculus may change.
“They have to ask themselves a question now: when this buffer itself becomes a cause of instability, is it worth maintaining good relations with North Korea?” he said.
According to Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Treasury Department analyst, the new sanctions hit an economic sector that has largely been untouched by past efforts and it will make it more difficult for North Korea to operate on the seas.
“I think it’s important to note that the North Koreans have become very adept at sanctions evasion, so this is part of the cat-and-mouse game or whack-a-mole the U.S. has been playing with North Korea for quite some time,” he said.
Schanzer expects the sanctions and related advisory will discourage companies that have been willing to do business with North Korea in the past from continuing to do so, because they are driven more by profit than loyalty to Kim.
“There is a large illicit economy out there,” he said. “North Korea has exploited it. It’s hard to imagine an ideological affinity for this regime, primarily because we don’t really know what the ideology is.”
Officials stressed that the new sanctions are only one element of their ongoing “maximum pressure” strategy to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Another key element of that plan, an advanced and effective ballistic missile defense system that can prevent an attack on U.S. territory, is also being bulked up by the Trump administration.
“We have made significant strides in BMD capability this year with commitment to thicken the layers of missile defense through THAAD and Patriot system modernization,” said Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of Republic of Korea and U.S. forces for U.N. Command, in a statement to the House Armed Services Committee last week. “Increasing interoperability with ROK systems is a key part of improving Alliance missile defense, including program upgrades to the ROK Patriot system and procurement of PAC-3 interceptors. As North Korea continues to improve its missile forces, the ROK-U.S. Alliance must also continue to expand its BMD capabilities.”
North Korea has tested a ballistic missile apparently capable of traveling a range of 8,000 miles, but experts do not believe it is yet capable of attaching a warhead to such a device. Much is unknown about the regime’s weapons program, but some predict it could achieve that ability within months if left unchecked.
Whatever the truth may be, Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it would be “imprudent” not to plan as though that threat could materialize sooner than later.
“We’re going to have to prepare for the worst and show them we are capable of dealing with the worst and also show [North Korea] it’s in their interest to dial this back a little bit,” Karako said.
The Department of Defense will release its Ballistic Missile Defense Review in the next few weeks, the third report in a series that has already included the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review.
Karako had no advance knowledge of what the review will conclude, but he expects it to be in line with the priorities of the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the fiscal year 2019 budget request, which was released last Monday.
“It would be fair to surmise that the review is going to be both responsive to current threats and consistent with the direction that’s broadly given within the NDS,” he said.
“The budget increases the capability and capacity of the United States to detect, defeat, and defend against any North Korean use of ballistic missiles against the United States, its deployed forces, allies, and partners,” the White House budget proposal stated.
The DOD is seeking $12.9 billion for missile defense, including $9.9 billion for the Missile Defense Agency. Those funds would pay for 43 Aegis interceptors, four ground-based mid-course defense interceptors, 82 terminal high altitude area defense interceptors, and 240 patriot advanced capability missile segment enhancements.
“That reflects a very near-term focus on the urgency of putting stuff out now to deal with the threat as we face it today,” Karako said.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon also announced a $6.5 billion contract with Boeing to complete “accelerated delivery of a new missile field with 20 additional silos” in Alaska.
Results of missile defense tests have been mixed over the years, and some critics say tests conducted under ideal conditions are not predictive of the system’s response to a real-world threat.
Still, Gen. Lori Robinson, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told lawmakers last week she is “100 percent confident” she can protect the country from a North Korean attack.
“While I’m confident that we can defeat this threat today, it is critical that we continue to improve the ballistic missile defense enterprise,” she told the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to The Hill.
In late January, a new ground-based interceptor failed to stop a ballistic missile in a live-fire test in Hawaii. Karako emphasized that the interceptor is still in development and the test’s failure is not a sign that the Aegis Ashore system will not work.
“They’ll take that apart, they’ll put it back together again, and they’ll figure it out,” he said.
Even if sanctions on North Korea are effective, experts say that will not diminish the urgency of deploying reliable missile defense systems.
“I think that need exists regardless of whether its North Korea or Iran or any other threat for that matter,” Schanzer said.
According to Karako, the focus of the NDS on competition with powers like Russia and China indicates the Trump administration is already looking beyond North Korea.
“If the Pentagon is serious about the very clear injunction of the NDS,” he said, “then it would make sense to adapt how we think about air and missile defense and redirect it to the air and missile threats posed by Russia and China.”
If that is the case, even the increased funding the DOD is seeking for 2019 may not be sufficient for the amount of work it will take. Russia is testing its own missile defenses and experts expect accelerating U.S. defense technology will spur the Russians to develop weapons that can thwart it.
“It’s going to be important for Congress to ask whether the budget request in its current form is adequate to the tasks of either outpacing the North Korean threat or adapting to great power competition,” Karako said.