The Trump administration is considering sweeping sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system as part of a broad review of measures to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threat, a senior U.S. official said.
According to the official the sanctions would be part of a multi-pronged approach of increased economic and diplomatic pressure, especially on Chinese banks and firms that do the most business with North Korea, plus beefed-up defences by the U.S. and its South Korean and Japanese allies.
While the long-standing option of pre-emptive military strikes against North Korea is not off the table, as reflected by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s warning to Pyongyang during his Asia tour, the new administration is giving priority for now to less-risky options.
The official said the policy recommendations being assembled by President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, are expected to reach the president’s desk within weeks, possibly before a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early April.
It is not clear how quickly Trump will decide on a course of action, which could be delayed by the slow pace at which the administration is filling key national security jobs.
The White House declined comment.
Trump met McMaster on Saturday to discuss North Korea and said afterward that the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, was “acting very, very badly.”
The president spoke hours after North Korea boasted of a successful rocket-engine test, which officials and experts think is part of a program aimed at building an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S.
The administration source said U.S. officials, including Tillerson, had privately warned China about broader “secondary sanctions” that would target banks and other companies that do business with North Korea, most of which are Chinese.
The move under consideration would mark an escalation of Trump’s pressure on China to do more to contain North Korea.
It was not clear how Chinese officials responded to those warnings but Beijing has made clear its strong opposition to such moves.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the situation on the Korean peninsula was at a crossroads and there were two prospects.
One, she said, was that the relevant parties could continue to “escalate toward conflict and potential war”.
“The other choice is that all sides can cool down and jointly pull the Korean nuclear issue back to a path of political and diplomatic resolution,” Hua told a daily news briefing on Tuesday.
North Korea has relied heavily on illicit trade done via small Chinese banks.
So, to be applied successfully, the new measures would have to threaten to bar those banks from the international financial system.
Also under consideration are expanded efforts to seize assets of Kim and his family outside North Korea, the official said.
The military dimension of the review includes a strengthened U.S. presence in the region and deployment of advanced missile defenses, initially in South Korea and possibly in Japan.
The U.S. military, has begun to install a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system in South Korea, inspite of Chinese opposition.
Washington is increasingly concerned, however, that the winner of South Korea’s May 9 presidential election might backtrack on the deployment and be less supportive of tougher sanctions.