Washington’s latest tightening of the economic screws on North Korea has come with a stern warning to those who would help Pyongyang flout sanctions.
Announcing the newest round of American sanctions aimed at Pyongyang, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin declared that any country that continues to trade with North Korea does so “at their own risk.”
The comments were aimed squarely at Russia: at the beginning of the year, the White House accused Moscow of assisting North Korea in evading sanctions. U.S. President Donald Trump reiterated his allegations just over a month later.
When asked about Russia’s trade with North Korea, Treasury’s Mnuchin acknowledged that Russia had engaged in trade with North Korea, but simply stated that the U.S. was working with the Russian Federation on that specific issue.
The U.S.’s latest sanctions include the blacklisting of Taiwanese citizen Tsang Yung Yuan, who has facilitated trade between North Korea and Russia, according to the U.S. Treasury. Tsang had allegedly attempted to engage in an oil deal worth approximately USD$1 million with Moscow-based Independent Petroleum Company, which had been targeted under the U.S.’s Executive Order (EO) 13722.
In addition to sanctions, Mnuchin also issued an advisory on deceptive North Korean shipping practices, which included ship-to-ship transfers, an advisory which comes after Western European intelligence sources asserted that DPRK and Russian ships have been engaging in ship-to-ship transfers since at least last fall, following reports that vessels had been sailing directly from Russia to North Korea.
South Korea has ended up taking on a policy toward the DPRK that gels with Moscow’s interests
Russian sources had allegedly sold fuel to North Korea, although it is unclear about the extent to which Moscow was aware of or complicit in such activities.
Under the provisions of U.N. Resolution 2270, the DPRK is prohibited from selling coal abroad. Nevertheless, it is yet said to have shipped coal to Russia, which was then sold to Japan and South Korea. Despite the numerous indications that Russian figures have been complicit in helping the DPRK evade sanctions, Moscow has flatly denied American allegations.
Furthermore, the Russian foreign ministry has condemned U.S. unilateral sanctions as “circumventing” those imposed by the UN Security Council. Despite the numerous indications that Russian figures have been complicit in helping North Korea evade sanctions, Moscow has flatly denied American allegations.
Yet while Moscow and Washington grow increasingly at odds in their diplomatic relations vis-à-vis the North Korea crisis, the U.S.’s South Korean ally is enjoying an increasing rapprochement with Russia.
The Kremlin has extended an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in for July. While Russia-South Korea ties have focused heavily on bilateral economic cooperation, Russian media, however, has reported that the prospective meeting between the heads of state of two countries will focus on the Korean security crisis.
Under President Moon, South Korea has ended up taking on a policy towards the DPRK that gels with Moscow’s interests: Russia has even offered itself up as a venue for direct Pyongyang-Seoul discussions.
Moscow’s desire to see the two Koreas engage in direct discussions, and Moon’s pursuit of closer rapprochement, clearly differ from Washington’s traditional policies of isolating the North.
Russia has even offered itself up as a venue for direct Pyongyang-Seoul discussions
Indeed, South Korea has recently been moving diplomatically between Russia and the U.S. on North Korea. South Korea’s Special Representative for Nuclear Affairs, Lee Do-hoon, recently met with both the U.S.’s then-special envoy for North Korean affairs Joseph Yun, as well as Russia’s deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov.
Although Lee’s meeting with Yun and Morgulov occurred on separate occasions, the relatively close timing of the two meetings could be an indication that Seoul wanted to get one of its top security officials in contact with Moscow and Washington at roughly the same time.
There is no indication that Russia, as a policy, seeks to exploit fissures in South Korea-U.S. relation for its own benefit. Yet as the the prospects of Russia-U.S. cooperation in the Korea crisis continue to diminish, Russia and South Korea could establish a stronger foundation for cooperation in issues of Korean security.
It is too early to say that South Korea is experiencing a closer policy alignment with Russia at the expense of policy accord between Seoul and Washington. Russia maintains a position of skepticism on the effectiveness of sanctions against North Korea, while South Korea’s foreign ministry continues to assert that sanctions are still an effective means of changing the DPRK’s behavior.
Seoul and Washington do, however, diverge in their view of what role Moscow can play in diplomatic dynamics surrounding the Korean peninsula.
In Russia, the United States is seen as a spoiler; in South Korea, however, it is viewed as a potential partner. The extent to which Moscow and Seoul enjoy increased rapprochement could carry implications for the U.S.’s ability to coordinate policy with its Korean ally.
As ties between Moscow and Seoul grow, South Korea will have more options in its pursuit of multilateral coordination over the Korea crisis. But with Russia-U.S. accord over the Korean peninsula in sharp decline, it is unlikely that South Korea’s interests can simultaneously align with both.
Edited by Jenny Lee and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: the Kremlin
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