President Trump and members of his administration have recently struck a very friendly tone toward China, particularly with respect to that country’s apparent support for the effort to “denuclearize” the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un. But a senior Republican member of Congress on Sunday suggested that, behind the scenes, the administration is working on a different option that would be much more confrontational.
In an appearance on CNN, House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) said that despite indications that Beijing is concerned about nuclear proliferation in North Korea, the Chinese government is still supporting the Korean economy and its nuclear program. He said there are plans being put in place to hit 10 Chinese banks that do business in North Korea with crippling sanctions to cut off funding to the Kim regime.
The move would be similar to a highly successful effort in 2007 to cut off money to Pyongyang. At that time, the US imposed sanctions on Banco Delta Asia, a Macao-based bank that did considerable business with the North Korean regime. The impact was severe, on both the bank and North Korea, Royce said. Other banks, intimidated by the US move, restricted or eliminated their dealings with the North Korean government.
Directly harming China's financial institutions would also be a much more aggressive step against China than anything the administration has proposed so far.
“What we’re urging this president to do at this point is what was done once before with Banco Delta Asia and that is, shut down any foreign banks doing any kind of business in hard currency with North Korea, because when we last did that, we shut off the money for their program and we shut it down tight as a drum. And I think that’s the next step that has to be deployed.”
Asked by host Jake Tapper if he knew of any plans within the Trump administration to implement such sanctions, Royce said, “I do” and added that he and his colleagues in Congress are exploring other economic penalties as well.
“If China does cut off all transactions with North Korea...the dictator will not be able to pay his generals,” Royce said. “That’s what happened the last time we had these kinds of sanctions imposed on Chinese banks...That’s the leverage and we need that kind of political leverage because that’s the way to get the attention of the regime in North Korea and have them reconsider their nuclear program.”
If the Trump administration is indeed working on a sanctions program that would strike Chinese banks, its most senior members are keeping that fact well hidden.
The president himself has gone out of his way to publicly praise President Xi, following their meeting in Florida earlier this month and repeated phone calls since. He even dropped his long-repeated claim that China unfairly manipulates the value of its currency in order to give its manufacturers an advantage over foreign competitors.
“Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?” he tweeted on Sunday morning. “We will see what happens!”
Trump’s deputy National Security Adviser, KT McFarland, said on Fox News Sunday morning that Xi has expressed “willingness to do more” when it comes to North Korea, and said right now, patience is needed. “Give the Chinese president some opportunities and time,” she told host Chris Wallace.
On ABC, White House National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster also stressed the need for patience and cooperation. US allies in the region, he said, have recognized that the problem in North Korea, festering through multiple US presidencies, is now “coming to a head.”
“And so it’s time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully,” he said. “And so we’re going to rely on our allies like we always do, but we’re also going to have to rely on Chinese leadership. I mean, North Korea is very vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese. Eighty percent of North Korea’s trade comes from China. All of their energy requirements are fulfilled by China.
“So in the coming weeks, months, I think there’s a great opportunity for all of us -- all of us who are really the threat now of this unpredictable regime -- to take action short of armed conflict, so we can avoid the worst.”
But it’s unclear how long members of Congress are going to be willing to stay patient, especially if, as many analysts expect, North Korea conducts another nuclear weapons test in the near future.
Royce, the House Foreign Relations chairman, said that in his opinion, financial sanctions against banks serving North Korea should be immediate. “We must do it now because we have so little time left” before North Korea could have a nuclear weapon capable of striking the US. “This is the urgency,” he added.
Another powerful member of Congress, House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry, said on Fox that there had been progress getting China to put pressure on North Korea, but that more is needed.
“We need to keep the pressure on China to rein in North Korea; and their announcements about restricting coal shipments, for example, is a big step forward. That’s the biggest export North Korea has, coal to China.” Thornberry was referring to reports from last week that China was refusing deliveries of North Korean coal.
“But the...most important thing is to increase our military presence in the region and our military capability overall,” he said. “Remember, China does not want to have the new carrier battle group in their backyard. They are not excited about the missile defense deployments in Japan and Korea. Well, the answer for China is to get a hold of this guy in North Korea and that will reduce the necessity of us increasing military presence.”