WASHINGTON - China is making progress in enforcing sanctions imposed on North Korea, a U.S. State Department official said Thursday, and urged skeptical members of Congress not to rush to enact new ones before giving Beijing’s efforts a chance to take effect.
“We are working closely with China to execute this strategy and are clear-eyed in viewing the progress — growing, if uneven — that China has made on this front,” State Department Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton told a Senate hearing just before leaving for China with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Members of the Senate Banking Committee advocated for tougher action to clamp down on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development.
China on Thursday ordered North Korean-owned businesses to close, cutting foreign revenue for the isolated North under U.N. sanctions imposed over its nuclear and missile programs.
China is North Korea’s main trading partner, making Beijing’s cooperation essential to the success of sanctions imposed in an effort to stop the North’s pursuit of weapons technology.
North Korean businesses and ventures with Chinese partners must close within 120 days of the Sept. 11 approval of the latest sanctions, according to the Ministry of Commerce. That will be in early January.
North Korean companies operate restaurants, trading outfits and other ventures in China, helping to provide the North with foreign currency.
The latest round of sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council ban member countries from operating joint ventures with North Korea.
The sanctions also ban sales of natural gas to North Korea and purchases of the North’s textile exports, another key revenue source. They order other nations to limit fuel supplies to the North.
China, which provides the bulk of North Korea’s energy supplies, announced last Saturday it will cut off gas and limit shipments of refined petroleum products, effective Jan. 1. It made no mention of crude, which makes up the bulk of Chinese energy supplies to North Korea and is not covered by the U.N. sanctions.
China also has banned imports of North Korean coal, iron and lead ore, and seafood since early September.
However, China sharply increased agricultural exports to the North in recent months, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
Chinese corn exports to North Korea jumped about 100 times in July and August to a total of 34,964 tons from a year earlier, the paper said, citing figures from Beijing’s General Administration of Customs.
Similarly, rice exports surged 79 percent in the same period to 17,875 tons and wheat flour exports climbed 11-fold to 8,383 tons.
Tensions have been rising on the Korean Peninsula as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump exchange war-like threats and insults.
On Thursday, South Korea said it expects more provocative acts by North Korea next month to coincide with the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party.
Several banking committee members want harsher measures, including secondary sanctions targeting Chinese banks and companies doing business with North Korea, and measures to bar oil imports.
Thornton and the other witness, Treasury Department Undersecretary Sigal Mandelker, said Congress should not do anything that could interfere with efforts to find a diplomatic solution.
“When our hands are tied in different ways, it keeps us from being agile in the way that you would want us to be agile,” Mandelker said.
Trump ordered new sanctions against North Korea last week, including on its shipping and trade networks, showing he was giving more time for economic pressures to address the crisis after repeated warnings about possible military action.
“We are able and have the authority to target any company that’s continuing to trade with North Korea in any industry,” Mandelker said, when asked about the prospect of cutting off Chinese oil exports to North Korea.
Several committee members noted that North Korea’s economy has grown in recent months, and said China must do more.