The Obama administration is considering going after the assets of North Korean entities and individuals to punish Pyongyang after the sinking of a South Korean warship, sources familiar with the matter said on Friday. Freezing offshore assets would be the first tangible U.S. action to make North Korea pay a price for the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan corvette in which 46 South Korean sailors died. Pyongyang has denied responsibility for the incident.
While there have been extensive U.S. sanctions on Pyongyang for decades, such a move could influence North Korea because it would hit accounts controlled by military and political leaders whom U.S. officials believe must have authorized the attack.
Speaking on condition that they not be identified, the sources said targeting North Korea’s illicit funds appeared to be one of the few ways the United States can get the attention of the leadership of the impoverished communist state. They also said there is a growing view within in the Obama administration that former President George W. Bush’s 2005 move to blacklist a Macau bank for allegedly laundering North Korean money was ultimately useful in pressuring Pyongyang. [Reuters, Arshad Mohammad]
One minute, you’re an isolated crank shouting at the heavens from the wildness, the next moment, well … you’re an isolated crank whose ideas were several years ahead of their time. And if this administration really has the testicular fortitude to do this, I couldn’t be happier to admit that I was wrong in predicting that it didn’t. But then, we’ve heard leaks like this before, and the measures we’ve applied thus far have fallen far short of their full potential.
“We are facing an imperative to demonstrate once again to North Korea that there is no reward for its provocative behavior, that in fact there is going to be a penalty,” the official said. “We have all the authority that we need to tighten the screws on specific individuals or institutions that support the leadership.”
Perks and luxuries derived from North Korea’s shadowy network of overseas interests are believed to be one of the main tools Pyongyang uses to ensure loyalty among top military and party leaders. The sources said the Treasury had done extensive work to identify targets but if the administration does employ the financial sanctions it would be expected to wait for the U.N. Security Council to first move on against North Korea.
The officials suggest that this new policy direction is largely motivated by a growing consensus that “there is little chance” that the U.N. — sit down for this — “will approve additional sanctions” against North Korea, which is a polite way of saying that China is filibustering and neutering the Security Council’s already dubious utility as an instrument for preserving peace. So we’re going to give the U.N. its opportunity to fail and then proceed, unless this is just a leak designed to get the Chinese to move.
A U.S. Treasury spokesperson said it was not policy to comment on possible investigations or actions. Asked what consequences North Korea had suffered for the Cheonan’s sinking, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to go into details with reporters on Tuesday.
“We continue to look at ways in which we can affect North Korea’s thinking. And it’s not only the institutions, the revenue stream that goes into the government,” he said.
This updated version of the Reuters report offers a few more details:
Crowley said that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell consulted with Japan and South Korea over possible financial sanctions on North Korea when Campbell traveled to the two countries earlier this week. ”We consult closely with allies on these subjects all the time,” he said, suggesting that Washington is likely to work together with Tokyo and Seoul on further sanctions against Pyongyang. He declined to comment on specific measures the government is studying, saying, ”I’m not going to predict any particular step.”
According to U.S. government sources and those familiar with the matter, the U.S. government is preparing to bar financial institutions suspected of involvement in shady deals with North Korea such as transactions of weapons of mass destruction, currency counterfeiting and money laundering.
If this policy shift really takes place, it’s pregnant with two wonderful ironies. The first is would be the restoration — by President Barack Hussein Obama — of American foreign policy to American institutions, steering us back away from a drum-circle foreign policy held hostage by the U.N., which in turn is the hostage of the ChiComs, the Frogs, and sort-of-post-Soviet Russia. The second would be that the sinking of a South Korean warship during the tenure of a weak South Korean General Secretary could be a League of Nations moment for the United Nations, and with any luck, one of enduring consequence for supplanting the U.N. with a coalition of democracies forming a strong economic coalition and a loose military one.