The U.S. government will impose sanctions on 27 international shipping companies that have helped the North Korean regime smuggle coal and oil into the country, senior administration officials told reporters on Friday. The sanctions also specifically target 28 vessels and one person.
The officials called it “the largest-ever sanction tranche” aimed at disrupting illicit maritime activity related to North Korean smuggling. The sanctioned entities hail from “North Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Marshall Islands, Tanzania, and Panama” among others, senior administration officials said.
Some of the sanctioned shipping companies had used deception to hide their activities, according to the officials, including painting vessels to give a false impression about the vessels’ origin and disabling their ships’ automatic identification system, or AIS. The administration is accusing the entities of transferring coal or oil either directly to North Korea or to other ships with the intent of getting the supplies into North Korea as a final destination, in violation of a United Nations Security Council Resolution.
The news comes on top of a January announcement that the U.S. government would pursue sanctions against a Russian entity for similar smuggling activity. But the newest set of sanctions includes no such target. “We have been in close discussions with the Russian government about sanctions and designations of Russian entities,” said one senior administration official. “Of course they aren’t happy when we designate Russian entities. But they do understand we are serious.”
Officials called the move a “critical part of our maximum-pressure campaign” to push the North Korean regime to abandon both the possession and development of nuclear weapons. The officials claimed that illicit fuel deliveries to North Korea were down 89 percent since the September start of a UN-imposed cap on fuel imports.
In addition to illicit shipping and smuggling, the North Koreans also rely on criminal cyber activity —ransomware attacks and hacks aimed at cryptocurrency exchanges—to fund weapons development. In December, the U.S. said that North Korean actors were responsible for the devastating WannaCry ransomware attack. The most recent set of sanctions specifically target maritime activity. But, officials said, the government would remain vigilant on North Korea’s use of cybercrime to subvert the impact of economic penalties for weapons development. “We continue to work with all our partners to try and ferret out illicit cyber activity,” said one senior administration official. “We know that North Korea will move to more evasive actions going forward.”