Trump's North Korea strategy proves he's more than willing to alienate Russia and China

Key Points
  • The latest U.S. sanctions on Chinese and Russian firms for aiding North Korea could anger Beijing and Moscow, two countries that hold influence over the rogue state
  • If Washington ever sanctioned a Chinese financial institution, that could drastically hurt bilateral ties

The White House isn't afraid of angering potential partners in its quest to pressure North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into denuclearization, experts said.

The Treasury Department on Tuesday announced new penalties against 10 entities and six individuals, mostly Chinese and Russian, for providing support to North Korea in ways that aided the rogue state's missile and nuclear weapons programs.

President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address from Fort Myer, Virginia.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters

The decision comes just a few weeks after Beijing and Moscow agreed to fresh United Nations sanctions on the North, indicating that the U.S. is "doubling down on its pressure campaign to steer Kim Jong Un into negotiations," analysts at political consultancy Eurasia Group wrote in a Tuesday note.

The White House "is willing to alienate or cajole both Beijing and Moscow to get on board with its strategy," the note continued.

China and Russia are close allies of North Korea and can wield influence over the pariah state due to deep economic and business ties. But many now fear Washington's actions could spark more animosity, instead of cooperation, between the three U.N. Security Council members.

Beijing has already slammed Washington over the new sanctions, which it called "long-arm jurisdiction over Chinese entities and individuals." China opposed unilateral sanctions out of the U.N. Security Council framework and urged the White House to "immediately correct its mistake, so as not to impact bilateral cooperation on relevant issues," a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy told Reuters on Tuesday.

Others believed Tuesday's move was more than justified.

"Chinese and Russian companies are violating U.S. law and in some instances, they are violating the UN sanctions that they voted for," said Anthony Ruggiero, a former senior U.S. Treasury official and currently a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-leaning think tank. "We need to ask whether these two countries are actually partners here."

Chinese, Russian entities are violating US law: FDD
Chinese, Russian entities are violating US law: FDD

"From my experience, the Chinese are more interested in negotiating a freeze of North Korea's program versus getting to an actual solution," Ruggiero added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has yet to officially respond to Tuesday's developments.

Moscow won't do more than criticize the new sanctions, Eurasia analysts predicted: "The move will irritate Russian officials already upset at Washington's codification earlier this month of Ukraine-related and election-related sanctions."

Who's been named

Among the Chinese names included in the new sanctions are three coal companies, including one of the country's biggest importers Dandong Zhicheng. The trio are collectively responsible for importing nearly half a billion dollars' worth of North Korean coal between 2013 and 2016, with the revenue likely benefiting Kim's nuclear or missile technology, according to the Treasury.

Moscow-based company Gefest-M, which procured metals for a North Korean firm involved in Kim's nuclear and missile programs, was among the Russian entities singled out by the Treasury. Mikhail Pisklin and Andrey Serbin, individuals linked to Singapore-based Transatlantic Partners, in addition to Irina Huish of Singapore-based Velmur Management, were also identified for operating in Pyongyang's energy trade.

The two Singapore businesses, in addition to Dandong Zhicheng, were all accused of allegedly laundered money for North Korean banks that were subject to sanctions.

China responds to US sanctioning Chinese firms
China responds to US sanctioning Chinese firms

Potential consequences

Going forward, the world's second-largest economy is expected to "vociferously protest" Tuesday's action, but it won't ultimately cut off cooperation with the U.S. on North Korea or directly retaliate against American firms, according to the Eurasia note.

"Beijing is eager to avoid further U.S. sanctions and risk of a serious escalation in tensions ahead of the fall leadership transition," it said, referring to the ruling Communist Party's 19th National Congress. President Xi Jingping will likely use Trump's visit to China in November to steer Washington toward a less confrontational approach on both North Korea and trade, it continued.

Trump has repeatedly publicized his displeasure with Beijing's contribution to the North Korean crisis and if Washington ever named a Chinese financial institution in sanctions, then Beijing would strongly retaliate, strategists expect.