U.S. imposes new unilateral sanctions on North Korea

President Barack Obama signed the sanctions law that enables the U.S. to restrict other countries from doing business with North Korea. Picture shows Obama looking towards North Korea during a visit to the Demilitarised Zone along the North-South border in 2012. —FILE PHOTO: AFP  

U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law a piece of legislation passed by Congress imposing new sanctions against North Korea for testing a nuclear device on January 6 and launching a satellite on February 7 using ballistic missile technology.

New unilateral sanctions by the U.S seek to sharpen and expand the scope of existing sanctions against the North, but with its neighbour and closest ally China opposed to it, the efficacy of the move remains ambiguous at best.

No deal on UN sanctions

Despite intense U.S diplomatic efforts, including a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry to China in January last week, there has been no agreement between the two countries on the nature of the measures to be taken against a defiant North. As a result, negotiations at the UN for new multilateral sanctions are stuck. China has opposed the unilateral sanctions announced by the U.S.

The new sanctions regime will require the President to mandatorily investigate and designate persons and entities for violations. The law will also give more tools to the administration to enforce secondary sanctions — which are restrictions on a third country from doing business with the North.

“Previous executive orders, and other pieces of Congressional legislation, covered many of the sanctioned activities contained in the new law. However, sanctions designations were largely discretionary in the hands of the President, State Department, and Treasury Department.

“The bill also now covers some activity not targeted for sanctions before, such as North Korea’s metal and coal exports, and gives the U.S. government greater tools to implement so-called secondary sanctions. Since North Korean entities are often difficult to sanction directly, this could be a more effective way to cut off North Korea’s third-country support networks, streams of foreign revenue, and supply chains,” according to Lisa Collins, fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

The law also provides for $50 million to support humanitarian programmes and transmit radio broadcasts into the North. North Korea’s main supply lines are from China, which has been unwilling to be harsher with sanctions. U.S.’s unilateral push could further add to the tensions with China, heightened in recent days over disputes in South China Sea.

Seeking help from Beijing

Speaking hours before the President signed the new law, State Department Spokesperson John Kirby urged China to desist from “militarising” the South China Sea. “[T]his is a relationship that’s too important. We want to see and welcome a peaceful, prosperous rise of China. They’re a regional leader and a global leader in a rapidly growing economy. And they have and can exert positive leadership and influence.

“And you know we talked a lot about North Korea and a role that China can play there — a very useful role that, frankly, no other nation in the region can play. And that’s what we want to focus on, is working through these tensions and trying to strengthen what could be a very strong relationship with a very powerful nation. And these kinds of activities aren’t doing anything to help us get to that end,” Mr Kirby said.

U.S.’s unilateral push could further add to the tensions with China, heightened in recent days over disputes in the South China Sea