WASHINGTON (AP) — New U.S. sanctions may make life uncomfortable for North Korea’s elite, but the North will not feel real pain unless the United States gets help from a reluctant China, Pyongyang’s main economic and diplomatic lifeline.
The sanctions announced Wednesday by the Obama administration are a show of solidarity with Seoul over the sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea. The measures are intended to shine a spotlight on shady North Korean business and weapons dealings.
Forcing the North to abandon its nuclear ambitions, however, will depend in large part on whether China joins tough measures meant to cut off the flow of cash North Korea gets from alleged money laundering, counterfeiting of cigarettes and U.S. currency, drug smuggling, and the sale of missile and nuclear technology.
Getting China to pressure a country it considers a buffer between itself and South Korean-based U.S. troops will not be easy. China worries that chaos from a collapsed North Korea could spill across a shared border, along with a flood of refugees.
To win support for its new measures, the Obama administration is sending Robert Einhorn, the State Department official in charge of enforcing sanctions against the North, to Asia next month. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will discuss the sanctions this week with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
The United States already heavily sanctions North Korea. American officials also have targeted private banks in Asia that might have North Korean ties, part of an attempt to block money that could be used for missiles and nuclear bombs.
The new U.S. measures, which will not be ready to implement for another couple of weeks, aim to target arms sales that fund the North’s nuclear program and luxury items bound for Pyongyang’s ruling class.
Juan Zarate, who helped develop U.S. sanctions strategy in the George W. Bush administration, said that even without Chinese help, the new sanctions could “keep the pressure on North Korea, both psychologically and in terms of the international financial scrutiny” of proliferation and banking activities.
He added, “It’s incredibly important how the Chinese react.”
The sanctions show the Obama administration’s determination to keep pressuring the North after Pyongyang responded to the White House’s initial engagement offers last year by conducting nuclear and missile tests.
The Obama administration is sensitive about publicly criticizing Beijing over North Korea, however, mindful that it needs Chinese cooperation on economic, environmental, diplomatic and military initiatives around the world.
Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California warns that the Obama administration “will have to be tough with Beijing, something it hasn’t been willing to do to date.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Foster Klug covers U.S.-Asia affairs for The Associated Press.