President Trump persuaded China to freeze all financial transactions with North Korea and ordered a new round of U.S. sanctions Thursday, closing out his first U.N. General Assembly with a major diplomatic victory in his efforts to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs short of war.
In a carefully choreographed strategy deployed from the shadow of the United Nations headquarters in New York, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin called the head of China’s central bank very early Thursday to alert him that Mr. Trump was preparing an executive order to sanction any financial institutions doing business with North Korea. He asked for the cooperation of China, the main source of North Korea’s cash.
Hours later, the People’s Bank of China announced it was directing all other banks in China to halt financial transactions with North Korea.
Soon afterward, Mr. Trump signed an executive order in a meeting with the presidents of South Korea and Japan, expanding the Treasury Department’s ability to freeze the assets of banks or individuals doing business with Pyongyang. Mr. Trump praised China’s action, saying with uncharacteristic understatement that it was “somewhat unexpected.”
“For much too long, North Korea has been allowed to abuse the international financial system to facilitate funding for its nuclear weapons and missile programs,” Mr. Trump said. “Tolerance for this disgraceful practice must end now.”
Mr. Trump’s tightening of the screws culminated his weeklong effort to marshal more international pressure on North Korea. The expanded and coordinated sanctions were announced two days after Mr. Trump alarmed many at the General Assembly by warning that the U.S. was prepared to “totally destroy” North Korea if it attacked the U.S. or its allies.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in praised Mr. Trump’s handling of the crisis, saying through a translator, “North Korea has continued to make provocations, and this is extremely deplorable and this has angered both me and our people, but the U.S. has responded firmly and in a very good way.”
White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Mr. Trump is taking the steps to try to resolve the crisis “short of war.”
A senior administration official said the White House wants China and North Korea to understand that “this is different than anything in the last quarter century.”
“We’re not negotiating for the right to negotiate, which is all the ‘strategic patience’ was all about,” the official said. “We’re going to try and have discussions so that we’ll reach a point where we agree to have negotiations. And we’ve made it clear that they need to step forward and be prepared to abandon the ballistic missile program and dismantle the nuclear weapons program. That’s where negotiations and discussions begin.”
The official added, “We think China’s going to need to walk with them on that because of the outsized role that China plays in their economy, their long historic relationship, dating all the way back to the Korean War.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un described Mr. Trump early Friday in Asia as “mentally deranged,” according to Reuters. He said North Korea would consider the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history” against the U.S. in response to Mr. Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” the North.
Some analysts said Mr. Trump’s thinly veiled threat of sanctions against Chinese banks, his lobbying of Chinese President Xi Jinping and even perhaps his threat of nuclear war appear to be working, at least for now.
“U.S. pressure is having an effect,” said Bill Bishop, a China analyst and publisher of the Sinocism newsletter. “If the U.S. decides to ratchet up secondary sanctions another notch, expect sanctions and/or penalties against a large [People’s Republic of China] bank like China Merchants, but not one of the big four.”
Michael C. Desch, director of the International Security Center at Notre Dame University, said China was likely responding to the threat of war as much as any other incentive.
“My sense is that it is not sanctions and the U.N. but rather China’s fear that the North Korea situation is spiraling out of control that is leading Beijing to take these steps,” he said. “The last thing China wants is a war on its border that, at a minimum, could remove a key buffer between it and an American ally and at a maximum could result in a thermonuclear war right next door.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican and a member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, said the administration’s sanctions “are aimed squarely at North Korea’s despot but also remind China that it has a strong interest in preventing a nuclear arms race in Asia.”
Lawrence Ward, a partner at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm who focuses on international trade and national security law, said the U.S. sanctions coupled with the announcement by China’s central bank “will serve to further isolate North Korea.”
“Time will tell if today’s announcements by President Trump and China’s central bank will work to force Mr. Kim to the negotiating table or embolden him in his approach of the last few weeks,” Mr. Ward said.
As Mr. Trump has noted, Mr. Kim has resisted other international efforts to scale back his development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
North Korea conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test on Sept. 3, reportedly a hydrogen bomb. It has launched more than a dozen missile tests this year, including two rockets that have flown over Japan, and has threatened to attack the U.S. territory of Guam in the South Pacific.
The U.N. Security Council has approved two rounds of economic sanctions in recent weeks but has stopped short of more drastic steps such as a full oil embargo. Since 2006, the United Nations has slapped nine rounds of sanctions on North Korea.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, who was also in New York, belittled Mr. Trump’s aggressive rhetoric.
“If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a dog barking, that’s really a dog dream,” he told reporters Wednesday.
The president said previous U.S. administrations have allowed North Korea to reach this crisis point.
“The United States has had representatives working on this problem for over 25 years,” he said. “They have done nothing. That’s why we’re in the problem we’re in today, in addition to other countries, frankly, not doing what they should have done.”
Even John Podesta, who served as White House counselor to President Obama and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said Thursday that Mr. Trump’s sanctions were an “important step.”
Mr. Trump said the actions are aimed at “a complete denuclearization of North Korea.”
“North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development is a grave threat to peace and security in our world,” Mr. Trump said. “It is unacceptable that others financially support this criminal rogue regime.”
The executive order authorizes the Treasury Department to target “any individual or entity that conducts significant trade in goods, services or technology with North Korea.” The administration also will target industries such as textile, fishing and manufacturing for tougher sanctions.
“Foreign financial institutions are now on notice that going forward they can choose to do business with the United States or North Korea, but not both,” Mr. Mnuchin said. “We call on all countries around the world to join us in cutting off all trade and financial ties with North Korea in order to achieve a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.”
The Treasury secretary said he believes the sanctions will be more effective than previous efforts because Treasury now has the authority to “freeze or block any transactions, with any financial institution, anywhere in the world.”
“This is something that has been in the works for a while,” Mr. Mnuchin said. “It was about two weeks ago that I had been discussing this with the president, and this was all part of the president’s strategy at the U.N. this week.”
Mr. Trump’s order also bars foreign ships and planes that have visited North Korea from traveling to the U.S. within 180 days of that visit.
Lawmakers in both parties generally support the move. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, called the action “important progress.”
“Finally, we are beginning to apply maximum pressure on Kim Jong-un,” he said.
Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called China’s action important but said more steps are needed.
“We need direct talks now, first to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and then to reach a diplomatic solution that peacefully denuclearizes the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “Only through the toughest economic sanctions along with sustained diplomacy can we force North Korea to the negotiating table.”
Mr. Moon made a plea at the United Nations on Thursday to lower tensions with North Korea and warned of accidental war.
“We should manage the North Korea nuclear crisis in a stable manner so that tensions are not escalated too much or peace is not destroyed by accidental military clashes,” Mr. Moon told the U.N. General Assembly.
He demanded that North Korea “stop its reckless choice” of pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.