WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States sanctioned on Thursday two North Korean companies linked to a group it accuses of drug smuggling and other “illicit” activities to support the nation’s secretive leadership.
U.S. sanctions against North Korea aim in part to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programs, which the United States views as a threat to its allies South Korea and Japan. The North tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009.
The Treasury Department’s moves against Korea Daesong Bank and Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation will freeze any assets belonging to them that fall within U.S. jurisdiction as well as bar U.S. companies from dealing with them.
Their main aim is not to block North Korean assets in U.S. banks — analysts say there are unlikely to be any — but to discourage other banks from dealing with North Korea, thereby cutting off its access to foreign currency and luxury imports.
Perks and luxuries such as jewelry, fancy cars and yachts derived from North Korea’s shadowy network of overseas interests are believed to be one of the main tools Pyongyang uses to ensure loyalty among top military and party leaders to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
The Treasury described the two entities as “key nodes of the illicit financing network” of Office 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party, which it accuses of producing and smuggling narcotics to earn foreign exchange for the government.
“Korea Daesong Bank and Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation are key components of Office 39’s financial network supporting North Korea’s illicit and dangerous activities,” Treasury Under Secretary Stuart Levey said in a statement.
The Treasury designated the two under a recent executive order that targets entities that support North Korea’s arms trafficking, facilitate its luxury goods purchases and engage in illicit economic activities such as money laundering, drug and bulk cash smuggling and counterfeiting goods and currency.
President Barack Obama signed the executive order on August 30 allowing the Treasury to block the U.S. assets of North Korean entities that trade in arms or luxury goods, counterfeit currency or engage in money laundering, drug smuggling or other “illicit” activity to support the government or its leaders.
When that executive order was announced, the Treasury accused Office 39 of producing opium and heroin and of smuggling narcotics such as methamphetamine.
U.S.-North Korean relations have deteriorated since Obama took office, with his aides deeply unhappy about Pyongyang’s decision to conduct nuclear and missile tests last year as well as the March 26 sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan.
Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed in the incident, which the United States, South Korea and other nations blame squarely on North Korea. Pyongyang denies responsibility.
In the August 30 executive order, Obama cited the Cheonan’s sinking as well as 2009 nuclear and missile tests by North Korea as evidence it poses “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security, foreign policy and economy.
The Obama administration has been skeptical about returning to so-called six-party negotiations with the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia under which Pyongyang committed in 2005 to abandon its nuclear programs.
U.S. officials say they do not want to talk for the sake of talking and North Korea must show some commitment to abandoning its nuclear programs.
Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Editing by Eric Walsh