Trump officials call out China, Russia for helping N. Korea evade sanctions

The Trump administration on Tuesday called out Russia and China for helping North Korea evade international sanctions, publicly detailing how the two countries help Pyongyang smuggle coal.

“The intelligence community has provided to your committee today evidence of how vessels originate in China, they turn off their transponders as they move into North Korean waters and dock at North Korean ports and they onload commodities such as coal. They keep those transponders off and then they turn them back on as they round the South Korean peninsula, and they head into a Russian port,” Assistant Treasury Secretary Marshall Billingslea told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pointing to a chart of satellite images and maps he said illustrate specific examples.

“In this particular case, this vessel … sat in that Russian port for a period of time and then headed back out to water, ultimately docking back in China with North Korea-origin coal — sanctions evasion.

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“The second slide, which we’ll show, is yet another example. In this particular example you have a vessel that pulled into North Korea, kept its transponder off in violation of international maritime law, docked in Russia, offloaded the North Korean coal. Another vessel — that one was Panamanian — another vessel from Jamaican or Jamaican-flagged, picked up the North Korean and headed straight to China, again circumventing sanctions.”

Billingslea's testimony comes a day after the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed tough new sanctions against North Korea.

Those new sanctions, which come on the heels of North Korea’s latest and most powerful nuclear test, banned North Korean textile exports and capped its imports of crude oil.

In order to get the support of Russia and China, which have veto power in the council, the sanctions were watered down from the Trump administration’s original goal of banning all oil imports and freezing international assets of the North Korean government and its leader, Kim Jong Un.

Palpably frustrated members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee commended the latest U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang, but repeatedly pressed Billingslea and acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton on how they plan to ensure China enforces them and how the U.S. will punish Beijing if it does not.

Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said the United States “cannot accept half-measures” from China and pressed Billingslea on the timing of sanctions on China’s biggest banks.

“I understand that many of these banks have significant operations in the United States and that there would be consequences to our economy,” Royce said. “However, these banks’ U.S. presence is the very thing that makes these sanctions so powerful. They’d rather do business with us than North Korea.”

Billingslea responded by saying China and Russia should both be recognized for supporting the two latest U.N. sanctions, but added that the administration has warned China that if it wishes to avoid further sanctions, such as the ones on its Bank of Dandong, the United States needs to “urgently” see action.

“I cannot tell the committee today that we’ve seen sufficient evidence of China’s willingness to truly shut down North Korean revenue flows, to expunge North Korean elicit actors from its banking system or to expel the various North Korean brokers and middlemen who are continuing to establish webs of front companies,” Billingslea said. “We need to see that happen.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) ripped into Billingslea and Thornton, saying he hadn’t heard anything different from what he’s heard for the last 20 years. He pressed Billingslea on whether the United States is considering sanctions against China, rather than sanctions on corporations.

“While we haven’t made the American people safer, we have met the political objectives here in the United States,” Sherman said. “We don’t threaten China even a little bit with country sanctions because that would be politically difficult for the United States to do. We don’t adopt reasonable objectives, like a freeze in the North Korean program, because that would be politically difficult to do.”

As Billingslea was about to describe the pressure campaign's recent "pace of action," Sherman interrupted to say sarcastically, “It’s unprecedented, just like the last 19 years.”

Royce said that the issues raised by Sherman get to the “bottom line” of the issue.

“It’s been a long, long time of waiting for China to comply with the sanctions we pass and frankly with the sanctions that the United Nations pass,” Royce said. “This is where the discussion needs to go next if there isn’t full compliance with the sanctions that the U.N. has passed because what’s at risk is our national security.”