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Five things to know about Trump’s new North Korea sanctions

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Five things to know about Trump's new North Korea sanctions

The Trump administration slapped a new tranche of sanctions on North Korea on Friday in what President Trump  billed as the United States’ “heaviest sanctions ever.”

While experts debated whether the sanctions really were the “heaviest ever,” Friday’s action was seen as a significant step in the Trump administration’s pressure campaign to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

For much of Trump’s presidency, the United States and North Korea have engaged in a rhetorical tit-for-tat as Pyongyang makes strides towards developing a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

The Trump administration has also bulked up the sanctions regime against North Korea, shepherding several rounds of ever-tougher international sanctions through the United Nations and imposing new unilateral sanctions. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the United States now has 450 sanctions against North Korea, half of which have come in the last year. 

Here are five things to know about the most recent sanctions. 

The sanctions target illicit activities on the high seas

As sanctions tighten trade in and out of North Korea, U.S. authorities are stepping up their efforts to make sure North Korea doesn’t get around those restrictions.

The new U.S. sanctions are aimed target 27 shipping and trade companies, 28 vessels and one individual in an effort to clamp down on illicit trade with North Korea.

The targeted entities are located, registered or flagged in North Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Marshall Islands, Tanzania, Panama and the Comoros. 

The sanctions are aimed particularly at ship-to-ship transfer of coal and fuel, which North Korea relies on to keep its struggling economy afloat and to run its nuclear and missile programs.

Still, it’s unclear how much the new sanctions will hurt North Korea, an expert in evading trade restrictions.

“The large number of targets may temporarily put a squeeze on North Korean shipping by increasing the risk of engaging with any of the designated companies or ships,” Andrew Keller, a partner at Hogan Lovells and the former deputy assistant secretary of State for sanctions and counter threat finance, said in a statement. “There’s no guarantee, though, that today’s action will ultimately be effective in preventing the illicit trade in coal and fuel with Pyongyang.

“North Korea has shown itself to be masterful at circumventing sanctions, and the U.S. cannot stop that without sustained effort from China and Russia.” 

The Trump administration is naming and shaming

In addition to the sanctions, the Treasury and State Departments and the U.S. Coast Guard issued a global shipping advisory putting the world on notice that there will be consequences for helping North Korea. 

“As part of the maximum pressure campaign against North Korea, the United States is committed to disrupting North Korea’s illicit funding of its weapons programs, regardless of the location or nationality of those facilitating such funding,” the advisory reads. “As such, the United States will continue targeting persons, wherever located, who facilitate North Korea’s illicit shipping practices.”

Treasury also released five new photographs purporting to show the tactics North Korea uses to evade sanctions. For example, one shows what Treasury says is a North Korean ship that falsely declared a Chinese homeport, used a name that does not correspond to any current or former vessels and usedthe International Maritime Organization number of an entirely different ship in attempts to evade detection. 

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said the shipping advisory and the pictures are an effort to “name and shame” what North Korea does to evade sanctions. 

“It gives public a face of what’s going on,” he said. “It’s a smart way to go.” 

Russia was not targeted

Though the sanctions take aim at entities across the world for doing business with North Korea, none of those entities are Russian.

Russia, like China, has been accused of being one of the worst offenders at helping Pyongyang evade sanctions.

Not including Russia in Friday’s move could draw the ire of critics who say Trump is soft on Moscow.

Indeed, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took Friday’s announcement as an opportunity to hit Trump on not imposing sanctions on Russia for its election interference.

“Trumpeting sanctions as a get-tough tactic against North Korea makes it even stranger that this White House refuses to use sanctions against Russia in response to an attack on our democracy,” Engel said in a statement.

Mnuchin insisted the Trump administration would sanction Russian vessels and entities for North Korea issues if warranted.

“We’re prepared to blacklist Russian ships to the extent there are Russian ships,” he said at a briefing on the sanctions. “So let me be clear, whether they’re Russian ships, whether they’re Chinese ships, we don’t care whose ships they are. If we have intelligence that people are doing things, we will put sanctions on them.”

Mnuchin also told reporters, without prompting, that his department continues to work on sanctioning Russia for its 2016 election interference and would have information “within the next several weeks.”

The Olympics thaw is ending

The new sanctions came as Ivanka Trump , the president’s daughter and trusted advisor, landed in South Korea to lead the U.S. delegation at the Winter Olympics closing ceremony.

Mnuchin downplayed the timing, saying they sanctions were announced now because that’s when they were ready. Still, Mnuchin added that Ivanka Trump was briefed on the sanctions and spoke with South Korean President Moon Jae-in about them over dinner.

The lead-up to the Olympics saw a thaw in tensions on the Korean peninsula as the United States agreed to postpone joint military exercises with South Korea and Pyongyang sent athletes and a delegation to the games.

But few, if any, expected the thaw to last. And Friday’s announcement appeared to be confirmation for the skeptics that U.S.-North Korean relations willheat up again soon.

Kazianis described the timing as a carrot-and-stick approach: North Korea is getting hit with the stick of sanctions while having the carrot of possibly reaching out to Ivanka Trump in South Korea dangling in front of them.

Still, he stuck by his previous assessment that North Korea will restart nuclear and missile testing and the United States will restart joint military drills after the Paralympics in March, ratcheting up tensions once again. 

Military options are still on the table 

Hours after Trump announced the sanctions, the president raised the possibility of military action. 

If the sanctions announced Friday do not work, Trump warned, “we’ll have to go to phase two,” which he said “may be a very rough thing.”

“We’ll have to see,” Trump said during a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the White House. “I don’t think I’m going to exactly play that card. But we’ll have to see. If the sanctions don’t work we’ll have to go to phase two. Phase two may be a very rough thing. May be very, very unfortunate for the world.”

It’s unclear what type of military action Trump was hinting at.

Reporters earlier asked Mnuchin several times about the possibility of a naval blockade, which North Korea could consider an act of war. Mnuchin declined to comment on military options.

“As the president has said before, we’re not going to announce in advance anything we may do in the future on military actions,” Mnuchin said. “What I would say again is, right now we are using the full power of the United States economically, and working with our allies to cut them off economically. That’s the priority of the maximum-pressure campaign at the moment.”

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