Late Sunday morning, President Trump tweeted an extraordinary statement. “The United States” he announced, “is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.”
And the president’s tweet does not appear to have been an off-the-cuff blast. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin continued the theme in his “Fox News Sunday” interview later in the day when he announced he was preparing a sanctions package that will sever “all trade and other business” with North Korea. “I will draft a sanctions bill and send it to the president,” Mnuchin said to Chris Wallace. “We will work with our allies. We will work with China. But people need to cut off North Korea economically.”
Cutting off North Korea economically sounds like an embargo. And North Korea’s No. 1 trading partner—the country that accounts for slightly more than 90% of Pyongyang’s two-way trade when illicit commerce is counted—is China.
An American embargo almost surely will result in friction with Beijing and Moscow, but discord could be the price for denying Kim Jong Un the resources for his weapons programs.
There are many ways an embargo can be put in place. The Trump administration could simply declare one and then go about enforcing it on its own.
An alternative route would be for the White House to tell Chinese and Russian leaders that the U.S. intended to submit an embargo resolution to the Security Council and then demand they accept it without delay.
Why would Beijing and Moscow accept an embargo when they have consistently resisted far less strict measures? With regard to China, Russia’s senior partner in crime when it comes to North Korea, the Trump administration retains overwhelming leverage.
Chinese banks, for instance, are vulnerable to U.S. criminal prosecution and, more important, sanctions. Bank of China, named in a 2016 U.N. report for money laundering for Pyongyang, is especially at risk. The U.S. Treasury could fine the bank or even designate it a “primary money laundering concern” pursuant to Section 311 of the Patriot Act.
By Gordon G. Chang