The US Treasury Department on Wednesday announced new financial sanctions targeting a group of North Korean nationals living in China over their alleged role in aiding Pyongyang’s illicit weapons programmes.
The sanctions come one day after North Korea conducted its latest test of a “hypersonic” missile, in alleged violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. It was the nuclear-armed country’s second such test in one week.
“Today’s actions, part of the United States’ ongoing efforts to counter the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes, target its continued use of overseas representatives to illegally procure goods for weapons,” said Brian Nelson, the US under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, using an acronym for the official name of the country, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
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“The DPRK’s latest missile launches are further evidence that it continues to advance prohibited programmes despite the international community’s calls for diplomacy and denuclearisation,” said Nelson.
The four sanctioned men worked in the Chinese cities of Dalian and Shenyang to procure supplies that would help the North build its nuclear weapons programme, the Treasury Department said.
All were affiliated with North Korea’s Second Academy of Natural Sciences (SANS), an organisation that the UN describes as a “national-level organisation responsible for research and development of the DPRK’s advanced weapons systems, including missiles and probably nuclear weapons”.
SANS was sanctioned by the US a dozen years ago and by the UN Security Council in 2013.
The Treasury Department said the North Korean nationals living in China had worked on behalf of “SANS-subordinate organizations” to procure steel alloys, software, chemicals and other goods from Chinese companies.
At a State Department press briefing on Wednesday, spokesman Ned Price ignored a question about why the US had not also sanctioned any Chinese firms that might have been doing business with the North Koreans.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment about the sanctions.
Under the new measures, the people named will be cut off from the US financial system, and anyone who does business with them could also be subject to additional blacklisting.
The sanctions also target a North Korean national living in the far-eastern Russian city of Vladivostok who allegedly worked to procure telecommunications-related equipment from Russia for North Korean companies. He was also affiliated with the SANS, the Treasury Department said.
Two other individuals in Moscow – one North Korean, one Russian – and a Russian organisation called Parsek LLC were also added to the sanctions list on Wednesday by the US State Department “for having engaged in activities or transactions that have materially contributed to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery by DPRK”.
In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said they had worked to move items from Russia to North Korea “with ballistic missile applications” that included aviation oil, ball bearings, Kevlar thread and instructions for creating solid rocket fuel mixtures. The North Korean national in Moscow also worked to procure stainless steel tubes and aramid fibre on behalf of Pyongyang’s Rocket Industry Department, Blinken said.
Their relationship “is a key source of missile-applicable goods and technology for the DPRK’s missile programme”, Blinken said.
North Korea’s recent missile tests are part of the country’s efforts to expand and improve its arsenal of weapons amid continuing tensions and stalled diplomacy with Washington.
The first test launch of the “hypersonic” missile came last September.
Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, was present at the most recent test on Tuesday, according to North Korea’s state news agency – his first official attendance at a missile launch in two years.
After the test, Kim huddled with the hypersonic weapon research and development team, “expressing great expectation and conviction that they would help bolster the war deterrent of the country”, the state news agency said.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile had flown more than 700 kilometres (435 miles), with a top speed of 10 times the speed of sound, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.
The tests also come at a fraught time for the region – just over three weeks before the Winter Olympics begin in Beijing, and two months before the upcoming presidential election in South Korea.
Pyongyang said last week that it would not send athletes to the Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic and “hostile forces” – meaning the US.
One of the North’s top demands has been for the US to lift all sanctions that have squeezed the country’s economy in recent years. Washington says Pyongyang needs to back off on its nuclear weapons programme first.
Sue Mi Terry, a former US intelligence officer who served in the CIA and National Security Council, called the new sanctions announced on Wednesday “the right move” – but added that North Korea still did not seem to be high on the agenda at the White House, with China, Russia and Iran taking priority.
“The Biden administration has said they are willing to meet with the North Koreans at any time without preconditions, but Kim Jong-un has shown no interest in meeting,” said Terry, now director of the Centre for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Centre, a think tank in Washington.
“The administration doesn’t have a whole lot of other options,” she said. “It needs to keep calm and carry on with sanctions and deterrence.”
But she added: “The downside of course is that North Korea is expanding and diversifying its WMD arsenal – and there is not much the US can do about it.”
Additional reporting by Owen Churchill
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