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Trump Administration Is Trying To Make It Harder For North Korea To Evade Sanctions


President Trump says he's imposing the toughest sanctions to date on North Korea. The goal is to pressure the country to give up its nuclear weapons program. These latest measures are meant to get countries around the world to take notice of how North Korea has been getting around restrictions on coal exports and fuel imports. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.S. is taking aim at 27 companies and 28 shipping vessels from countries around the world. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says these are virtually all the ships that are helping the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un evade international sanctions.


STEVEN MNUCHIN: This action targets the deceptive shipping practices that have enabled the Kim regime to fund its dangerous weapons programs.

KELEMEN: The blacklist includes companies and vessels from China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan along with Panama, Tanzania and elsewhere. Mnuchin showed images from last year of so-called ship-to-ship transfers of fuel and other products destined for North Korea. And he says the U.S. is determined to crack down on that.


MNUCHIN: Those who trade with North Korea do so at their own peril.

KELEMEN: He wouldn't rule out the possibility that the U.S. could board ships to enforce sanctions. And the Treasury secretary says he thinks the sanctions are making a difference, pointing out that there are now 450 of them, half of them imposed in the last year. But a former State Department official, Richard Nephew of Columbia University, says the Trump administration shouldn't overstate this.

RICHARD NEPHEW: These are the kinds of basic, you know, sanctions implementation steps that you have to do. You have to keep going after the various different transportation and trade links that exist because it's these links that allow the regime to keep going.

KELEMEN: And adding more names to a blacklist isn't a major change, Nephew says.

NEPHEW: Just taking these guys out is not necessarily going to shift the calculus of the government in Pyongyang. And that's where I have a bit of a quibble with this idea that this is somehow a major, new, significant initiative. It's really kind of more of the same.

KELEMEN: The State Department and the U.S. Coast Guard are also sending out a global shipping advisory. It warns that some vessels have been disabling transponders to mask their movements and painting over their names to obscure their identity. Why is the U.S. imposing sanctions now given that North Korea hasn't been testing missiles lately and has been talking with the South and taking part in the Olympics? Treasury Secretary Mnuchin says the U.S. wants to keep the pressure on.


MNUCHIN: While we appreciate the fact that there haven't been tests, that's not exactly a terrific standard of what we're applying.

KELEMEN: He says President Trump's daughter Ivanka is, quote, "part of the team on this" and briefed South Korea's president today. She's in Korea for the closing of the Winter Olympics. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.