Unfortunately for those of us concerned with the DPRK, the breakthrough was between the US and Cuba.
Two weeks after the historic announcements by Raul Castro and Barak Obama, President Obama signed an executive order that allows the U.S. Treasury Department to impose new sanctions on targeted individuals and institutions from North Korea, in retribution for the Sony hack. These entities cannot receive aid, nor can they conduct any transactions with U.S. individuals or entities. Ten North Korean government officials and three organisations were targeted. (See here for a full list.)
Critics of Obama predictably (and correctly) noted that this was largely symbolic in nature: the administration attempted to fend off this criticism by stating this action was just the beginning of a bigger campaign.
This is no doubt what worries Pyongyang, which dished out some, ahem, colourful language, including the priceless term, “inveterate repugnancy”. After all, the main entities targeted, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, and the Korea Tangun Trading Corporation have almost certainly not been dealing with Americans and certainly are already well versed in flying under the radar. The direct impact of sanctions on these newly listed entities will be small indeed.
It is largely the threat of escalation to which Pyongyang is responding and perhaps the uncertainty of how Obama sees the DPRK featuring in his remaining time in office. If Cuba is a key legacy project for Obama, his administration will have thought through a number of contingencies for the battle over a major Cuba-policy change among more skeptical branches of the US government. Moreover, its widely accepted that Obama feels there is no chance of improving relations with Pyongyang during his remaining years as president. Does he feel he can or needs to ‘get tough’ on North Korea to help deflect criticisms that he’s being soft on Cuba?
The link between the two issues has already been drawn by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez. He, like many Republicans, is predicting Obama will have “a difficult time” getting the legislature to fund a US Embassy in Havana or confirm an ambassador, while calling on the administration to get tougher on North Korea.
To what degree Cuba and North Korea are connected in the minds of key decision-makers in Washington remains to be seen. Whether there is a deterioration between the US and North Korea in the next two years, or whether (like most cybercrime issues) it is forgotten rather quickly, and US actions remain limited and symbolic, it is a safe bet that there will be no breakthroughs between the two antagonists anytime soon. Meanwhile, American travelers to Cuba will increase and the voices calling for more cultural and economic connections will grow more empowered this year. Making the tension between Pyongyang and Washington seem all the more archaic.
We would like to note that Choson Exchange actively keeps a list of sanctioned entities and items as noted on the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List. We take steps to ensure that designated individuals and organizations do not participate in CE programs.