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View more articles by Jacob Fromer
Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
President Donald Trump is set to sign a new wave of North Korea sanctions into law on Friday night in Washington, a move that could infuriate Pyongyang with just days left before Kim Jong Un’s self-declared deadline for negotiations with the U.S. arrives.
The sanctions target Pyongyang’s coal, iron, textile, and seafood industries, along with certain banks that do business with the DPRK. They also aim to help governments around the world enforce existing UN sanctions, and seek to put pressure on countries that don’t do enough to enforce them.
The new sanctions are just one small part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act — a mammoth bill that determines much of U.S. foreign policy and spending levels for the coming year — but may attract outsized attention from the DPRK once Trump puts his signature down and makes them law.
The author of the legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Andy Barr, told NK News in an interview on Friday that the new sanctions are a necessary tool that can help the U.S. achieve its biggest goal with North Korea: denuclearization.
“This is in the vital national security interest of our country to put maximum pressure on Pyongyang, so that we can ultimately resolve the issue through diplomacy,” he said, speaking on the phone from his home state of Kentucky.
“The United States is not going to relent until they start to abide by the norms of international behavior.”
Barr is the top Republican on the U.S. House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which oversees the Treasury Department’s sanctions enforcement.
Questions over nuclear weapons and sanctions seem to be front and center in the on-again, off-again diplomacy between the Trump administration and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.
In early October, Trump sent his special representative for the DPRK, Stephen Biegun, to Sweden to sit down with a senior North Korean diplomat for a rare high-level negotiating session between the two countries.
But the two men went their separate ways after 8.5 hours with no deal in hand, and a diplomatic stalemate has lingered — and worsened, by many accounts — ever since.
Biegun was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Thursday as the new Deputy Secretary of State — a promotion that he says will “elevate” the issue of North Korea even higher in the Trump administration.
He spent most of this week in east Asia, in what seems to have been a last-chance attempt to restart talks with Pyongyang before Kim Jong Un’s year-end deadline arrives.
According to reports, Biegun held numerous meetings in China, Japan, and South Korea about the state of negotiations with the DPRK — but was unable to meet with the North Koreans themselves.
On Friday morning, President Trump said on Twitter that he had spoken on the phone with Chinese leader Xi Jinping about North Korea.
And in public, President Trump continues to press Kim Jong Un on the issue of nuclear weapons.
“He signed a strong Denuclearization Agreement with me in Singapore,” Trump tweeted earlier this month, referring to Kim. “He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election in November.”
But by virtually all accounts — including from Biegun himself at his recent confirmation hearing — the DPRK has not stopped its nuclear weapons production whatsoever, and insists instead that the U.S. remove sanctions before it makes any more concessions on that front.
North Korea watchers are unsure of the exact number of nuclear weapons that the DPRK possesses, but many estimate that the country has already produced a few dozen.
Daniel Wertz, the Program Manager at the National Committee on North Korea, told NK News that even without this new bill, the sanctions currently written into U.S. law are “already very extensive.”
“At this point, Congress has little leeway to significantly toughen sanctions, other than to try to mandate to the executive branch how they should be enforced or to put new restrictions on their removal,” he said.
“Nonetheless,” he added, the new legislation “is a reminder that, if North Korea moves ahead with an ICBM test or goes wherever else its threatened ‘new path’ might lead, there will likely be bipartisan calls on Capitol Hill for more aggressive sanctions enforcement.”
Congressman Barr emphasized to NK News that there is indeed bipartisan unity in Congress — rare, these days — on sanctions and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
“Even while there’s politics in Washington right now, and division in the country,” he said, “this is one area where Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, are unified in supporting our efforts to increase sanctions pressure on the Kim regime, so that we can ultimately get a verifiable and enforceable agreement that leads to the denuclearization of the peninsula.”
In late 2017, a similar sanctions bill, also authored by Barr, passed the U.S. House by a vote of 415 to 2.
“We’re not naive enough to think that they won’t try to cheat,” Barr added. “What we’re trying to do here though is make it increasingly and much more difficult for them to do so.”
The new DPRK sanctions bill was named after Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died in 2017 after being imprisoned in North Korea.
Barr told NK News that Warmbier is on the minds of many members of Congress whenever North Korea comes up.
“The memory of Otto Warmbier is what motivates us in Congress to be very, very forceful in our views with respect to the Kim regime,” he said.
Featured image: Architect of the Capitol