On March 16, President Barack Obama issued a new executive order imposing additional sanctions on North Korea for its repeated violations of U.S. law and U.N. resolutions.
The order is a strong step forward for combating prohibited North Korean behavior since it provides additional authorities to U.S. agencies. The new executive order was required in order to implement the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enforcement Act of 2016 (NKSPEA) and U.N. Resolution 2270.
The new executive order commendably expands and enhances U.S. ability to punish North Korean violators and third-party entities providing assistance. The order appears to go beyond the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enforcement Act of 2016 and Resolution 2270 by imposing sectoral sanctions on North Korean transportation, mining, energy, and financial services, though it does not match the UN resolution prohibition of correspondent accounts.
The executive order also provides explicit authority to target entities engaged in or assisting North Korean violation of human rights, exportation of workers from North Korea (slave laborers), cyberattacks, and censorship by the North Korean government.
However, while the text is impressive and ominous-sounding in its powers, as was the case with all previous executive orders on North Korea, its effectiveness ultimately depends on how strongly it is actually implemented.
To date, unfortunately, the Obama administration has not fully enforced existing U.S. laws and regulations despite having an already impressive array of authorities to impose sanctions.
For example, last January’s executive order 13687 provided authority to sanction entities of the North Korean government simply for being a part of the North Korean government. There was no longer need to prove malfeasance. This removed a previous constraining factor against sanctioning certain entities due to the risk of divulging sensitive information or intelligence sources and methods. The U.S. used similar authorities to sanction 16 Russian officials after Moscow’s incursion into Crimea.
That executive order has been underutilized. Several years ago, US officials told me that they had all the authorities and regulations they needed to go after North Korea, no new laws were needed, only political will. Last year’s executive order — as well as other North Korean orders issued in 2008, 2010, and 2011 – were each touted as robust measures against Pyongyang. But the U.S. continued to sanction fewer North Korean entities that other countries committing far less egregious actions.
The accompanying list of newly sanctioned entities is lengthy and adds to the extensive list of North Korean entities that have been added during the past 6 months. The list focuses heavily on shipping (10 organizations and 20 ships), which will further constrain Pyongyang’s ability to ship prohibited items.
That said, the new sanctions list is as important for what was not included as well as what was included. Despite the expanded authorities, there wasn’t a single entity included involved in human rights violations, cyber, or censorship.
The Obama administration has still not sanctioned a single North Korean human rights violator two years after the U.N. determined the regime had committed crimes against humanity. Although the U.S. has sanctioned by name the presidents of other nations, there is still no inclusion of Kim Jong-un or any of the entities mentioned in the Commission of Inquiry report. This is a glaring omission.
Also absent from the sanctions list were any entities from outside North Korea. The U.S. has been reluctant to go after Chinese entities that facilitate prohibited North Korean activity. Only by applying secondary sanctions on non-North Korean entities, including those in China, will U.S. targeted financial measures be fully effective.
Overall, the new executive order is a strong step forward. But, just as with China’s promises to implement the U.N. resolution, we need to reserve judgment until we see how the Obama Administration implements it. Unfortunately, both Beijing and Obama have repeatedly failed to live up to their hype.