The United States (US) has placed sanctions on companies employing North Koreans overseas, leading to fresh obstacles in the US-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK-North Korea) nuclear negotiations. On January 14, Tuesday, the US Treasury Department froze the assets of two companies, the Korea Namgang Trading Corporation and the Beijing Sukbakso, for employing citizens of North Korea abroad. Both the companies are based in China. The US claims that the sanctions are towards preventing “illicit cash flows” into North Korea.
Over the past two months, the nuclear negotiations going on between the United States and North Korea have hit rocky waters as the US keeps oscillating between hostile to diplomatic, sending mixed messages. The sanctions on Tuesday were placed by claiming that the US was implementing the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council (UNSC) in 2017, which prohibit the employment of North Korean workers in overseas ventures.
North Korea sends over 100,000 workers as employees in various companies abroad, who send back considerable remittances home, estimated by the US to be as high as USD 500 million per annum. In a statement justifying the sanctions, the US treasury secretary said, “the exportation of North Korean workers raises illicit revenue for the government of North Korea in violation of UN sanctions.”
The sanctions come within days of the US government claiming to have “reached out” to the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un, to restart negotiations between the two countries. According to a statement by a presidential spokesperson, the Trump administration would like to continue the nuclear disarmament negotiations with the DPRK in Stockholm.
These negotiations were re-started in June 2018, when president Trump and Kim Jong-un met at a summit in Singapore. Further negotiations which took place in Vietnam in February 2019 did not yield any results as neither parties could agree on the terms on which the talks could be taken forward.
The summit in Sweden in October 2019 was broken off after North Korea accused the US of coming “empty-handed” and not offering any concessions. Following this, the negotiations came to a grinding halt.
Later in October, a resolution on human rights in North Korea was tabled at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), co-sponsored by a group of Western and NATO-aligned nations, including the US. The DPRK government took this as a “political provocation” by the Trump administration. Even though such resolutions are tabled almost annually in the UNGA by the same nations, their timing in the middle of major disarmament negotiations, only set the process back.
Interestingly, the South Korean government has tried to salvage whatever progress has been made through the peace process with its northern half by refusing to co-sponsor the UNGA resolution, something that the US did not do. In November 2019, the DPRK government condemned the continued joint military exercises between South Korea and the US, and stated that it was not willing to continue with the negotiations which were scheduled to be held in Stockholm in December 2019.