Sanctions a useful tool to curb bad actors, WMD proliferation

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The international community uses sanctions to punish bad actors and pressure governments to alter behavior and stop sponsoring or allowing nefarious acts. And in recent months, its sanctions against Russia for an unprovoked war on Ukraine keep making headlines.

Among the entities imposing such sanctions is the United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). According to its website, OFAC “administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United​ States.”

U.S. President Joe Biden elevated Russian sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), allowing OFAC to impose sanctions with devastating effects on the Russian government, including banning the import of Russian gold, enacting visa restrictions and freezing the assets of Russian banks that touch the U.S. financial system. OFAC sanctions are also an effective tool when dealing with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation, development and use within the Indo-Pacific region.

OFAC works to curb WMD proliferation through a list known as specially designated nationals (SDN), which includes individuals, groups and entities, including terrorists and traffickers, targeted and sanctioned by OFAC. Those listed have their assets blocked and are generally prohibited from dealing with individuals in the U.S., according to OFAC.

North Korea and other WMD proliferators

The SDN list includes individuals and governments operating in the Indo-Pacific, such as North Korea.

“These actions are in line with U.S. efforts to prevent the advancement of the DPRK’s WMD and ballistic missile programs and impede attempts by Pyongyang to proliferate related technologies,” OFAC said in a news release in early 2022, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. OFAC noted that each of North Korea’s ballistic missile launches since September 2021 violated multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.

North Korea’s missile launches “are further evidence that it continues to advance prohibited programs despite the international community’s calls for diplomacy and denuclearization,” the OFAC news release said.

The Treasury Department also targeted individuals engaged in activities to develop WMD through assistance with nationals in the People’s Republic of China and Russia. Russian-based North Korean national Choe Myong Hyon was among those sanctioned by OFAC for providing or attempted to provide goods or services to support North Korea’s weapons program.

O Yong Ho, a North Korean national in Moscow, Roman Anatolyevich Alar, a Russian national, and Russian entity Parsek LLC were also sanctioned for engaging in activities or transactions “that have materially contributed to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery by DPRK,” according to OFAC.

OFAC also sanctioned individuals associated with North Korea’s Second Academy of Natural Sciences (SANS). According to the U.N. Security Council, SANS is “a national-level organization responsible for research and development of the DPRK’s advanced weapons systems, including missiles and probably nuclear weapons.”

Current and future enforcement of OFAC sanctions

OFAC sanctions are effective in subjecting individuals on the SDN list, as well as any of their supporters, whether an individual, entity or financial institution under U.S. jurisdiction, to severe economic consequences and imprisonment. Moreover, the Treasury Department can punish foreign financial institutions for violating U.S. sanctions if there is a corresponding relationship with U.S. banks. As a result, foreign financial institutions tend to honor U.S. sanctions.

OFAC sanctions against WMD proliferators would be severe if there is a major threat to the U.S. The U.S. president can enact the IEEPA, which carries penalties of up to U.S. $1 million per violation and 20 years imprisonment. This creates additional concerns for sanctioned individuals, their supporters and other WMD proliferators in the Indo-Pacific. OFAC sanctions have succeeded in curbing WMD proliferation, and nations such as North Korea can expect to see them continue.

“The United States will continue to implement and enforce existing sanctions while urging the DPRK to return to a diplomatic path and abandon its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles,” Brian Nelson, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement, according to Reuters.


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