The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a sanctions bill, known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which includes a wide-ranging North Korea sanctions package, on July 25, 2017. One of the key provisions of the package is intended to cut off the North’s access to oil supplies from the outside. The bill, which combines three separate sanctions measures against Russia, Iran and North Korea, sailed through the Senate with a 98-2 vote, and it will come into effect if President Donald Trump signs it into law within 10 days. While President Trump could veto the sanctions mix, it is most unlikely that he would do so since both chambers passed the bill with veto-proof bipartisan majorities – the vote was far beyond the necessary two-thirds quorum.
In particular, the North Korea portion of the bill is focused on fundamentally shutting off Pyongyang’s access to dollar-denominated trade by militarily and economically isolating the recalcitrant regime. The bill imposes wide-ranging punitive measures, including but not limited to sanctions against the employment of North Korean forced laborers, prohibitions on vessels entering U.S. ports if they’re owned by the North or from other countries who reject the U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea, and bans on online commercial and gambling activities with the reclusive country. Previously, on July 25, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives, too, had overwhelmingly passed the bill on a 419 to 3 vote. It was unusual for Congress to move so swiftly on the legislation.
The flurry of activity in the Senate seems to reflect a sense of crisis enveloping the White House and the American public over North Korea’s nuclear missile program. This speculation is supported by a senior U.S. administration official’s response to a news report that North Korea will field an intercontinental ballistic missile by next year – “We're now at a point where this is going to become a fait accompli pretty soon.” Finally, the bill itself reflects U.S. determination to block the North by using the full range of its capabilities, everything except a direct attack.
The North Korea sanctions package is an extension of the Trump administration’s North Korea policy platform, known as “maximum pressure and engagement.” It reaffirms that giving up its nuclear missile program is the only option left for Pyongyang. Given Washington’s crystal-clear stance on the North’s nuclear program, it is highly likely that the U.S.-South Korea alliance over the North Korea problem will be crippled by the Moon administration’s open-to-dialogue approach. Seoul should not overlook the fact that Pyongyang is looking for cracks in the alliance between the two countries, as suggested by a Rodong Sinmun commentary that reads, “the dynamics of the U.S. and DPRK relationship have changed completely,” and demands that the U.S. retreat from its hostile policy toward North Korea, which was released on July 27, 2017, the 64th anniversary of the Korean War armistice agreement.