North Korea sanctions

US House members show frustration with Trump administration’s handling of North Korea

Republican foreign affairs committee chairman worries that ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is faltering; Democrat calls Trump-Kim summit a ‘failure’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2018, 4:46am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2018, 6:54am

US lawmakers have expressed frustration with the Trump administration’s handling of North Korea, with a top Republican questioning whether the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy had been exploited by Kim Jong-un, and a ranking Democrat calling President Donald Trump’s June meeting with the North Korean leader a substantial “failure”.

During a House Foreign Affairs Committee oversight hearing concerning the policy on Thursday, Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican who is the committee’s chairman, said he was “very concerned that our ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is faltering”.

“Kim appears to be using talks, as he has time and again, to probe for weaknesses and buy time,” Royce added.

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Representative Eliot Engel, Democrat of New York, criticised Trump directly.

“Despite the president proudly boasting success after the June summit, there’s been no progress on denuclearisation,” Engel said. “In fact, it now seems that the so-called success has turned into a failure.”

Royce, Engels and other committee members acknowledged that some sanctions instituted by the United Nations Security Council against North Korea had been effective. But they expressed concern that Kim’s government continues to take in export revenue that keeps the country’s nuclear weapons programme running.

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Royce, for example, accused China of starting to buy North Korean commodities again, saying it was a consequence of conflicting messages sent out by the Trump administration on the “maximum pressure” campaign: “When our messages are confusing or contradictory, we shouldn’t be surprised when others, like Beijing, reportedly resume importing North Korean coal.”

Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, also questioned Trump’s current approach of warming up to Kim.

“Why would Kim Jong-un submit to these pressures when Trump already gave the North Korean dictator everything he’s longed for – international legitimacy, an audience with an American president, and the cancellation of military exercises with our South Korean ally?” Connolly asked.

Marshall Billingslea, the US Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing, appearing as a witness, described one strategy he said Pyongyang had been using to evade sanctions, ship-to-ship transfers of goods.

“I’ve been active with a number of the countries that are flags of convenience nations such as Panama and others to identify specific vessels that we know are in fact owned and operated by North Korean shell companies to get them to immediately de-register, de-flag, de-list these companies,” he said.

“We also are designating specific companies and their ships. We just went after a Russian company and six of its vessels for engaging in ship-to-ship transfer behaviour, which is the primary method by which North Korea is undercutting the intent of the Security Council.”

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In addition, shortly before the hearings, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions against web design and app development companies in China and Russia that are owned and managed by North Korean entities.

Royce asserted that those companies used “slave labour” to help further Pyongyang’s weapons programme.

The Treasury identified Yanbian Silverstar Network Technology Company of Jilin, China, also known as China Silver Star; its North Korean chief executive Jong Song Hwa; and a sister company, Volasys Silver Star of Vladivostok, Russia, as part of this scheme.

“Those workers are fed, but the money, the cheque, goes to the regime and ends up going toward their military programmes,” Royce said.

Billingslea defended the sanction programme’s effectiveness, telling Royce that “we are not faltering on the economic pressure campaign”.

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“The pressure is on,” Billingslea added. “We continue to ramp up pressure to combat North Korea efforts to evade sanctions.”

Supporting Billingslea, Manisha Singh, assistant secretary for economic and business affairs at the State Department, told the committee that “the only time the North Koreans will see any relaxation of sanctions on their government is if we see a series of efforts to comply our demand of denuclearising”.

Kathleen Stephens, the US ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011, told the South China Morning Post that as long as news reports indicate that North Korea is continuing to build its nuclear materials, “you're going to see this kind of a concern in Congress about keeping the [sanction] pressure on”.

“My concern is that a way needs to be found to get into a serious negotiation that leads to some specific actions, which will help to get us down the path of steps towards denuclearisation and towards a more permanent peace.” Stephens, now president of the Korea Economic Institute of America, said.

Toward that end, the White House confirmed this week that Trump received a “very warm, very positive” letter from Kim requesting a second summit meeting between the two leaders.

A third inter-Korean meeting is scheduled for next week in Pyongyang, with Kim and his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, set to discuss practical steps toward achieving denuclearisation.

Additional reporting by Associated Press