The Cable

Beijing Blasts New U.S. Sanctions on North Korea

China's foreign ministry says new U.S. sanctions on North Korea raise tensions in the region.

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China is not happy about the new U.S. sanctions against North Korea.

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing was opposed to any unilateral punishments against its ally in Pyongyang. He said the new penalties, which respond to North Korea’s recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests, is something China was “paying attention to.”

“First, as I’ve said many times before, China always opposes any country imposing unilateral sanctions,” Lu said during a news briefing in Beijing.

Secondly, “the situation on the Korean Peninsula is complex and sensitive, we oppose any moves that may further worsen tensions there,” he added.

An executive order, signed Tuesday by President Barack Obama but released Wednesday, introduced a host of new penalties on Pyongyang. They vastly expand the U.S. blockade of North Korea, and ban the export of goods there.

They also threaten to ban anyone who does business with large sectors of North Korea’s economy — including its financial, mining, and transport sectors — from the global financial system. It prohibits the export of slave labor, which is often sent to China, and forces banks to freeze assets of those who break the blockade. China is Pyongyang’s largest major ally and trading partner.

“Any so-called unilateral sanctions imposed by any country should neither affect nor harm China’s reasonable interests,” Lu warned. He said Beijing has stressed this point many times.

The new sanctions “up the ante quite significantly,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a sanctions expert at the Center for a New American Security, the new sanctions “up the ante quite significantly.”

“It does impose something akin to a full embargo on persons who do business with North Korea,” she said.

Victor Cha, senior fellow to the Bush Institute on North Korea and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said these comments show Beijing is concerned about getting caught in the sanction net. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he said China was especially worried about the slave-labor provisions.

“China imports North Korean slave labor,” he said. “That’s the piece the Chinese don’t like the most, the secondary sanctioning.”

“This is a grade up from the level of sanctions that had been in place before,” Cha added.

The U.S. has also slapped penalties on officials in the Korean Workers’ Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, the entity that runs North Korea’s state media. This is the first time officials from Kim Jong-un’s propaganda machine have been targeted.  

China’s disapproves of North Korea’s nuclear program, and has joined new U.N. sanctions against it. At the same time, Beijing insists the international sanctions are ineffective, and maintains the only way to get Kim to dismantle the program is through diplomatic talks. Cha said it’s up to Beijing to make sure these penalties are enforced.

“if China does implement them fully, it will force them to come back to the negotiating table,” Cha said, referring to long-stalled talks to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program.  

The new penalties come after a Jan. 6 nuclear test. Later, on Feb. 7, North Korea launched a rocket that the United States and its allies said used banned ballistic missile technology. In January 2015, Obama penalized three state-run organizations and 10 North Korean government officials for their role in a cyber-attack against Sony Pictures.

They also arrive just after North Korea sentenced American student Otto Frederick Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda sign. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner has called for his release.

Photo Credit: Ed Jones/Getty Images

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