Concerns over North Korea’s steadily advancing nuclear program have often overshadowed the grave human rights situation inside that isolated country. The recent report of a UN commission that spent a year investigating rapes and mass starvation of political prisoners inside North Korea shone an important light on the behavior of this toxic regime.
Unfortunately, the panel’s recommendation that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un be held accountable for his actions in an international court is unlikely to be implemented any time soon. China holds veto power on the Security Council, and has already expressed its opposition to taking the North Korean leader to the International Criminal Court.
Nevertheless, there is much the United States can do unilaterally to step up the pressure on this irresponsible regime. Passing the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2013 is a logical step that would ensure that bad behavior faces consequences.
Much as Iran was confronted with crippling financial sanctions, the act would punish international financial institutions that do dirty work for North Korea. Under the act, the president of the United States would have the power to take action to deny the regime funds for serious human rights abuses, as well as nuclear proliferation, arms trafficking, kleptocracy, and imports of luxury goods by government officials. Banks that do business with Pyongyang would be faced with a choice: Risk being cut off from the US market, or stop doing business with North Korea. The act also stipulates that cargo that moves through ports that regularly fail to inspect North Korean cargo would face long delays entering the United States.
While no sanctions regime is perfect, Congress already knows that this one works. From 2005 to 2007, the United States imposed similar sanctions on North Korea. The Treasury Department designated Banco Delta Asia, a Macau-based bank, as a “primary money laundering concern” and cut it off from the US financial system. The result was devastating for the North Korean regime. Macau banking authorities froze 50 North Korean accounts worth $24 million, severely hampering the regime’s ability to access cash and purchase goods. Foreign businesses and banks shied away from doing business with North Korea — even from legal business ventures. The effect was so crippling that in 2008, North Korea agreed to destroy some of its nuclear technology and return to international talks. As a reward, President George W. Bush lifted the sanctions.
Unfortunately, North Korea has returned to its bad old ways, reneging on promises and resuming nuclear tests. It is high time for the United States to respond by renewing sanctions.