Just weeks after President Obama said it might be time for sanctions “with more bite” on North Korea, the House of Representatives is moving to impose tough new measures targeting the financial lifelines of the pariah state.
But prospects remain uncertain for the sanctions bill in the full Congress in a busy election year. And even as a House committee approved its sanctions legislation this week, Japan said it had agreed to reduce its sanctions on North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang’s cooperation on the long-smoldering issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped decades ago by the North.
Japan’s announcement was one more indication of what some experts say is flagging enforcement of international restrictions on North Korea, and of the North’s expanding ability to work around sanctions through illicit activities such as money laundering and counterfeiting.
On Thursday the House Foreign Affairs Committee gave bipartisan approval to a bill that would target North Korean money laundering, aim to put Pyongyang on an international banking blacklist, and slap the regime’s principle human rights violators with travel and financial restrictions.
“It’s time for Congress to lead by providing a clear legislative framework for sanctions to deprive [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un of his ability to build nuclear weapons and to repress and abuse the North Korean people,” Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R) of California said in announcing approval of the bill.
In March a United Nations inquiry into human rights in North Korea reported that “crimes against humanity” of a volume not seen since Nazi Germany were systematically being committed by the state against the North Korean people.
But some critics of the Obama administration’s policy toward Pyongyang say that, as desirable as congressional action might be, the real problem is the administration’s reluctance to use the tools it already has at its disposal for pressuring North Korea.
“What we really need is more energy on the administration’s part,” says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow and North Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “The fact is that the US already has laws and regulations that it could and should be implementing.”
Mr. Klingner faults the administration’s policy of “incrementalism” – gradually ratcheting up punitive measures in response to North Korean actions and provocations – for leaving the North with ample leeway for progress in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
In April, while on a trip to South Korea, Mr. Obama responded to suggestions that the North might be preparing for a fourth nuclear test by warning that the international community might have to consider imposing a fresh round of sanctions.
For some North Asia experts it is only a matter of time before North Korea, known to be working on miniaturizing a nuclear device, undertakes another nuclear test.
Testifying to the Foreign Affairs Committee in March, Klingner predicted that “North Korea will eventually return to provocation and threats.” North Korea may have turned quiet in recent months under the young Mr. Kim, but, Klingner added, the North’s advances in “miniaturization” and in missile technology – the latter giving it a “preliminary ability to reach the US” – make the Kim regime “a greater threat today than is widely construed.”
The House legislation would reimpose some sanctions that were in place before the Bush administration lightened a number of measures as part of a deal with the North on dismantling its nuclear facilities. Also as part of the effort to encourage North Korea’s de-nuclearization, the Bush administration removed the North from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008.
But some experts say new sanctions are needed to address the strides the regime has made in developing new illicit sources of revenue, including drug trafficking, counterfeiting of Western products – such as Marlboro cigarettes and Viagra pills – and labor trafficking.
Some experts and even South Korea have been critical of Japan’s decision to remove some sanctions in exchange for the North’s commitment to investigate unresolved cases of abduction from the '70s and '80s.
But Heritage’s Klingner says that while the abductees issue is of deep emotional importance to the Japanese (indeed anyone who has read the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner “The Orphan Master’s Son,” with its harrowing scenes of abductions of unsuspecting Japanese citizens to become language teachers to North Korean spies or otherwise serve the elites, will understand the issue’s hold on the Japanese), he does not consider the steps Japan is taking to be that damaging.
More important, he says, would be full enforcement by the US and other countries of United Nations sanctions and national measures that are already on the books.