US targets North Korea's chemical weapons program with new sanctions

The Trump administration on Wednesday unveiled new sanctions aimed at North Korea's chemical weapons program.

“We are sanctioning additional oil, shipping, and trading companies that continue to provide a lifeline to North Korea to fuel this regime’s nuclear ambitions and destabilizing activities,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The sanctions underscored the Trump administration’s fears about China and Russia failing to implement United Nations crackdowns on North Korea, despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to lead an international pressure campaign to cripple the regime’s nuclear weapons program. But they also put a spotlight on the pariah state’s chemical weapons program, which has received less public attention but still troubles western officials.

“[The United States] designated 10 representatives of the Korea Ryonbong General Corporation (Ryonbong), which has been designated by the UN and the United States,” the Treasury Department announcement explained. “Ryonbong specializes in acquisition for North Korean defense industries and support to Pyongyang’s military-related sales. Its procurements also probably support North Korea’s chemical weapons program.”

North Korea provoked international condemnation with the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of dictator Kim Jong Un, through the use of a chemical nerve agent. The threat of chemical and biological weapons attracted the attention of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Independent analysts told lawmakers that North Korea has significant stockpiles of those weapons, warning additionally that western officials “know far less” about the biological and chemical weapons systems than the nuclear weapons program.

“As his pursuit of chemical and biological weapons show, Kim Jong Un commands tools of indiscriminate mass murder, beyond nuclear weapons, and U.S. policy must be responsive to these threats as well,” Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., said during the January 17 hearing.

Six of the 10 Ryonbong officials operate out of China, the Treasury Department noted, while two others work in Russia. A third used to be based in Russia, but is now in Abkhazia — a province of Georgia that Russian President Vladimir recognized as an independent state after the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008. The Treasury Department targeted another four North Korean banking officials based on China and one who works out of Russia, as well as five shipping companies involved in smuggling operations.

The sanctions impose a freeze on any assets under U.S. jurisdiction, as well as a ban on Americans working with the targeted entities. “Treasury continues to systematically target individuals and entities financing the Kim regime and its weapons programs, including officials complicit in North Korean sanctions evasion schemes,” Mnuchin said. “Pursuant to UN Security Council Resolutions, the U.S. government is targeting illicit actors in China, Russia, and elsewhere who are working on behalf of North Korean financial networks, and calling for their expulsion from the territories where they reside.”

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