Several reports published Wednesday indicate that the Trump administration may be looking to expand sanctions against Chinese businesses who continue to do business with the fellow communist government of North Korea.
Pyongyang has entered a period of particularly erratic behavior following the use of a weapon of mass destruction to kill Kim Jong-nam, brother of dictator Kim Jong-un, which has lent greater urgency to the need to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump’s officials are studying the use of sanctions and economic limitations to punish Chinese companies that continue to lend a lifeline to the North Korean economy. “All of the existing tools that we have to try to bring pressure on North Korea are on the table, and we’ll be looking to try to see what the most effective combination is,” a “senior U.S. official” told the Journal.
Some Chinese companies have not only conducted business that profits Pyongyang but have sold North Korea materials that can be used in the development of weapons. Pyongyang has stated repeatedly its goal of becoming a nuclear power to attack and conquer South Korea and eliminate Asia’s American presence entirely.
The newspaper notes that the Trump administration has already begun to expand its responses to Chinese-North Korean business, with the U.S. Commerce Department announcing a fine on a Chinese company to “put the world on notice” that a UN ban on most business with North Korea will be enforced.
The New York Times also cites isolation of North Korea’s rogue government as a goal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to China this week. Tillerson will visit China, Japan, and South Korea, and is expected to prioritize cooperation on handling North Korea with the officials he meets.
“Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will warn China’s leaders that the United States is prepared to step up missile defenses and pressure on Chinese financial institutions if they fail to use their influence to restrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs,” the Times claims.
China is North Korea’s largest ally and trading partner, responsible for selling North Korea up to 90 percent of its fuel and 80 percent of its general use goods. Beijing has already moved to limit its support to the country following the Kim assassination, however. China banned coal imports from North Korea until the end of the year while demanding the United States “break the negative cycle on the nuclear issue” by sitting down to talks with North Korea. The Chinese insisted the ban on North Korean coal was an attempt to adhere to UN sanctions, not retaliation for Kim’s assassination. Kim Jong-nam was widely believed to be more friendly towards the Chinese government than his brother.
Kim Jong-nam was killed in Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysia. Malaysian authorities confirmed his identity and found he was killed with VX nerve agent, a weapon of mass destruction. Police have linked his death to high-ranking North Korean officials.
North Korea responded to the ban with a column attacking its “friendly neighbor.” While not mentioning China by name, the Korean Central News Agency called China a “U.S. vassal state” engaging in “moves to bring down the social system in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea],” despite both being communist nations.
Financial experts are predicting North Korea’s profits will drop 20 percent in 2017, in part due to China finally somewhat participating in international sanctions.
The United States is currently executing joint military exercises with South Korea, much to the chagrin of both China and North Korea. The annual Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises are meant to practice against a future invasion of South Korea and often elicit negative responses from both neighboring countries. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, has warned that “North Korea could conduct provocative actions during the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercise, or in connection with North Korean major political events in April,” and the U.S. military should be prepared for such a response.
China, through its state-run media, is claiming that North Korea and South Korea have become “equally hysterical” and the only solution is diplomatic talks, ideally organized and led by China.