The United States is probing a number of Chinese firms suspected of flouting sanctions against North Korea, in a new push to force Beijing to rein in its unruly ally.
State Department official Daniel Fried told a Senate hearing on Monday that several Chinese entities were under investigation, warning that doing business with North Korean firms was increasingly “not worth it.”
Signaling U.S. impatience with Chinese enforcement of UN sanctions, the remarks came two days after Washington announced unprecedented criminal charges against an industrial wholesaler located on the China-North Korea border.
The U.S. Treasury said on Monday it would sanction Dandong Hongxiang Industrial for handling the illicit cash flows of Development for Korea Kwangson Banking Corp., which is accused of supporting Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.
“Clearly our actions on Monday indicate that we are willing to sanction Chinese companies who are evading U.S. and U.N. sanctions,” Fried told the Senate hearing, according to Reuters.
China, which accounts for about 90 percent of isolated North Korea’s trade, has long been viewed as key to efforts to disarm Pyongyang.
While Beijing has claimed to fully support UN sanctions targeting the ostracized country’s weapons programs, it protested the targeting of Dandong Hongxiang Industrial as “long-arm jurisdiction” overreach.
Analysts have long been skeptical of China’s seriousness about enforcing sanctions that could seriously weaken the North Korean leadership. While apparently aggravated by Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear and missiles tests, Beijing fears a regime collapse that could see the deployment of U.S. troops and a refugee crisis on its border.
In recent media reports out of the border city of Dandong, Chinese businesspeople have described trade largely carrying on as normal, despite an official import ban on North Korean raw materials including coal, rare earths, and iron ore.
With North Korea thought to be as little as a decade away from possessing long-range nuclear missiles, Washington’s targeting of its Chinese enablers marks a change in strategy, following years of unsuccessful efforts to strong-arm the regime directly.
“I don’t think this is a game changer,” Robert E. Kelly, a professor of political science at South Korea’s Pusan National University, told The Diplomat.
“Rather, it is the next logical step. There is now wide consensus both in the U.S. government and analyst community that China is shielding North Korea from the full weight of sanctions. Targeting North Korea further won’t help unless China comes around on enforcement. So the sanctions discussion has moved on from Pyongyang to its enablers.”