Senior Republicans on Thursday called on Trump administration officials to beef up the enforcement of North Korea sanctions on Chinese companies, and warned that failing to do so will undermine U.S. progress with the regime on nuclear proliferation.
"We can't have China and Russia backing off and saying, ‘you know what we're not going to play anymore, and, we're going to supply North Korea with these products,” Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., told Treasury and State Department officials during a hearing.
The administration has struggled to advance the North Korean denuclearization process since his historic summit with dictator Kim Jong Un in June. A newly-appointed special envoy for the negotiations has spent the last several days on the Korean Peninsula and in China trying to jumpstart the talks. But top Republicans worry that the administration’s hesitance to impose stiff sanctions on China and Russia have given North Korea breathing room.
“I’m very concerned that our ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is faltering,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce said at the outset of the hearing. “Kim appears to be using talks, as he has time and again, to probe for weaknesses and buy time. When our messages are confusing or contradictory, we shouldn’t be surprised when others, like Beijing, reportedly resume importing North Korean coal.”
[John Bolton: Trump 'can't make' North Korea denuclearize]
China and Russia are selling oil to North Korea, despite U.S. assessments that the sales violate United Nations Security Council resolution imposing a cap on the amount of oil that Kim’s regime can import annually. Those economic ties contribute to some congressional assessments that the two countries want to use the North Korea crisis to diminish the U.S. military position in the region.
Yoho wants the Treasury Department to punish, in particular, the major Chinese banks that have engaged in money-laundering and other illicit financial transactions. “Are you looking at these banks as too big to fail — too big to sanction, I guess?” he asked Thursday.
The Treasury Department said that’s not what’s happening, even when the banks are big enough to “dwarf” even the largest American banks. “But that's not going to deter us,” assistant secretary Marshall Billingslea said.
But they’re also targeting individual bank accounts, rather than imposing sanctions on the entire financial institution.
“With a big bank... what we're doing is engaging in very specific discussions with the banks, particularly through their New York offices, to really drill down into the particular account holders that we believe are North Korean-related, to get them to expunge those people from their bank rolls,” he said. “And we have made some pretty good progress along those lines.”
That’s a far narrower approach than some lawmakers favor. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., argued last year that the Trump administration should go beyond sanctions for individual Chinese banks and apply sanctions on a country-wide basis.
Billingslea emphasized that the administration is taking aim at North Korea’s third-party backers, including in Russia and China. “Since the beginning of this administration, we have designated 60 of these operatives acting on behalf of U.S.- and UN-designated banks and weapons trading companies,” he testified.
Yoho urged him to notify Congress if they need additional sanctions authority to target China.
“This'll go down in history, five years from now, they'll say, ‘well, President Trump did this and it was a failed attempt,” the Florida Republican worried.