The Cable

Ahead of Trump’s China Visit, ‘Real Teeth’ in New North Korea Sanctions Bill

The proposed bill targets major Chinese banks and could give Trump leverage in Beijing.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a joint press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul on Nov. 7. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a joint press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul on Nov. 7. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

One day before President Donald Trump arrives in Beijing, the U.S. Senate is advancing a new North Korea sanctions bill that takes aim at Pyongyang’s chief enabler — China. 

On Tuesday, the Senate banking committee approved the Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea Act, or BRINK Act, in a unanimous vote. The bill, which has broad bipartisan support, would represent a significant increase in U.S. economic pressure on Chinese firms, including major banks, that help North Korea stay afloat and evade existing sanctions.

The bill will “give the administration a tool the evening they arrive in China,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), one of the bill’s bipartisan co-sponsors, at a Tuesday press briefing. Trump is scheduled to arrive in Beijing on Nov. 8 after a two-day visit to South Korea.

This bill “finally puts some real teeth” in sanctions, Van Hollen said. “The ultimate goal is to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.”

Van Hollen did not coordinate with the White House on this bill, a spokesperson from his office said. Administration officials have previously warned the committee against drafting bills that might hinder the diplomatic process. The BRINK Act would also require the president to report to Congress before ending the sanctions.

But the White House has also sought all year to get China to take more action to crack down on illicit North Korean financial activity, since the regime’s income helps underwrite its development of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The North Korean economy is heavily dependent on China. An estimated 85 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade is with China, making Beijing key to any economic or diplomatic effort to restrict Pyongyang’s missile program. But China has been reluctant to agree to sanctions, fearing that a North Korean economic collapse would send millions of refugees over the border into China.

So far, U.S. sanctions have been limited to small companies and individuals’ North Korean dealings and have avoided targeting any large Chinese financial institutions, a move that could potentially anger Beijing. China opposes unilateral U.S. action on sanctions regarding North Korea, preferring multilateral and U.N. sanctions.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson didn’t specifically address the new U.S. bill in a briefing but did reiterate China’s opposition to unilateral sanctions, most recently a new Japanese measure targeting North Korean people and companies based overseas.

“China’s position is quite clear-cut. We are always opposed to the unilateral sanctions imposed by one country on other countries outside the framework of the U.N. Security Council,” the spokesperson said.

In September, China’s central bank instructed Chinese financial institutions to obey U.N. sanctions. But if the bill passes, the United States will have to try to convince China to cooperate and enforce the tougher U.S. restrictions, even if that means hamstringing some of its big financial players.

“The big wild card is China,” said Zachary Goldman, a former policy advisor on sanctions at the U.S. Treasury Department in the Barack Obama administration. “The main weakness in the current North Korea sanctions regime is enforcement.”

And that would require a sustained push to get China on board, Goldman said, after the Trump administration has spent months threatening military action against North Korea and downplaying the role of diplomatic engagement in solving the impasse.

“The sanctions generate the leverage. Success depends on how you deploy that leverage, and that requires sustained, sophisticated, multilateral diplomacy,” Goldman said.

The bill would ramp up economic pressure on North Korea beyond the relatively small steps that have been taken by China so far. Beijing has cut off imports of clothing from North Korea, promised to limit imports of North Korean coal, and reduced the oil it ships to its energy-starved neighbor, said Lisa Collins, a fellow in the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“But it’s probably still not as much as the U.S. government would like to see. So there is still more room for negotiation between the United States and China,” she said.

Trump seemed to open the door to further talks on Tuesday. In South Korea, Trump urged all countries to implement U.N. sanctions on North Korea and pressed Pyongyang to “come to the table.”

But given Trump’s rhetoric, including publicly undercutting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts at a diplomatic solution, some observers worry there is little appetite for real talks.

“I don’t know that there is a real commitment to a meaningful diplomatic process” in the current administration, said Goldman. “But that is what would be necessary to translate sanctions into a strategic victory.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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