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Target of New North Korea Sanctions Bill: Finances

By Phil Eskeland

(“That’s Where the Money Is.”[1])

Last week, the House of Representatives and the Senate overwhelming passed and sent to President Trump’s desk a new sanctions bill for his expected signature. The bill originally focused on Russia and Iran when it was first adopted by the Senate, but was expanded after bipartisan, bicameral negotiations to include sanctions provisions against North Korea as well.  With all the talk in Washington about the inability of different sides to work together, few issues unite more U.S. public policymakers on both sides of the political spectrum than getting tougher on North Korea.  Last May, the House of Representatives passed the Korea Interdiction and Modernization of Sanctions Act (H.R. 1644) by another overwhelming bipartisan vote of 419 to 1.  Essentially, this new sanctions bill – Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (H.R. 3364) – takes almost every word from the House-passed North Korea sanctions bill to include it as part of Title III.

Much of the attention to this legislation has been directed at the first title of the bill affecting Russia.  The debate has primarily focused Congressional limitations on the flexibility given to the Executive Branch to implement the bill.  In the past, most sanctions-related legislation grants the President some discretion to waive or delay the imposition of sanctions, because the U.S. government may need flexibility in diplomacy and cannot wait for Congress to pass a bill to amend or end sanctions.  If there was any constraints on the Executive Branch, it was usually done when there was divided government (i.e., the Republican Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, when Democrat President Bill Clinton was in office, that placed into statutory law many of the presidential Executive Orders affecting U.S. trade with Cuba, and thus cannot be unilaterally lifted or altered by the President without the consent of Congress).  It is interesting to observe a Republican Congress reasserting itself as a co-equal branch of government by imposing a series of constraints on the ability of a Republican president to unilaterally waive part of the sanctions against Russia.

However, any additional Congressional limitations on the President’s ability to waive or delay the imposition of these new sanctions do not affect the provisions of the bill dealing with North Korea, despite a last-minute effort by some Senate Republicans.  Nonetheless, the primary purpose of Title III of H.R. 3364 is to close loopholes and target new areas to deprive the North Korean regime of the money it needs to operate.  The fundamental philosophy behind the effort is to “cut off the Kim Jong Un regime’s access to hard cash” and “to restrict North Korea’s ability to engage in illicit trade.”

How does this bill accomplish these goals?  First, the legislation mandates sanctions against foreign persons who engage in five activities that have been identified as major revenue-generating activities for the North Korean regime – high-value metals or minerals, such as gold and “rare earths;” military-use fuel; vessel services; insurance for these vessels; and correspondent accounts, which are used in foreign currency exchanges to convert U.S. dollars into North Korean won.

Second, H.R. 3364 increases the discretionary authority of the U.S. government to impose sanctions on persons who engage in one or more of 11 different activities that generate revenue for North Korea, including those who import North Korean coal, iron, or iron ore above the limits set by the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council resolutions; who buys textiles or fishing rights from North Korea; who transfers bulk cash or precious metals or gemstones to North Korea; who facilitates the on-line commercial activities of North Korea, such as on-line gambling; who purchases agricultural products from North Korea; and who are engaged in the use of overseas North Korean laborers.

Third, there is a provision closing one loophole in the international financial system that would prohibit North Korea’s use of indirect correspondent accounts.  These accounts temporarily use U.S. dollars when converting one foreign currency into another, such as North Korean won.  The aim of this provision is to further cut off North Korea from the U.S. financial system and restrict the ability of the DPRK to conduct business with other nations.

Fourth, the legislation curtails certain types of foreign aid to countries that buy or sell North Korea military equipment in the effort to dry up another source of revenue to the regime.  Nations will have a choice: buy North Korean conventional weapons or receive U.S. foreign aid to help their people.

Fifth, H.R. 3364 augments sanctions that target revenue generated from North Korea overseas laborers who work under inhumane conditions.  It would ban the importation into the U.S. of any product made by these laborers.  The bill would also sanction foreign individuals who employ North Korean laborers.

The legislation also ensures that humanitarian aid destined for North Korea is not affected by heightened U.S. sanctions.  However, H.R. 3364 did not retain a provision in the original House version that contained an exemption for planning family reunification meetings with relatives in North Korea, including those from the Korean-American community meaning that family reunions will still be subject to sanctions.  In addition, the bill contains a reward for informants who report violations of financial sanctions on North Korea, in the hopes of increasing the government’s ability to enforce these sanctions.  Finally, it requires a report from the Administration within 90 days after the bill becomes law on the efficacy of putting North Korea back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The debate over reinstating North Korea on the list was revitalized in light of the assassination of King Jong Nam, the exiled half-brother of the ruling leader of North Korea, at the Kuala Lumpur international airport in Malaysia using the VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon.

H.R. 3364 should not be seen as an end-goal, but as part of a continuing process of ratcheting up pressure on North Korea to denuclearize.  As this bill is implemented, North Korea will find new ways to evade sanctions.  Further legislation or action by other nations and the U.N. Security Council may be required to further clamp down on these loopholes.  However, the question remains unresolved if heightened sanctions from both the U.S. and the international community will produce the desired outcome – a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula – particularly before North Korea acquires the ability to launch a nuclear warhead on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the mainland of the United States.   Sanctions are only as strong as its weakest link.  Thus, North Korea’s main trading partner, China, needs to do much more if it is to live up to its rhetoric that “they will strive for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Image from Shawn Clover’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.      
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[1] Response by bank robber Willie Sutton to the question as to why he robbed banks, January 20, 1951, edition of the Saturday Evening Post, “Someday, They’ll Get Slick Willie Sutton.”

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