James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
11:40 A.M. EST
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Hello, everybody. Today, the Treasury Department is announcing the largest set of sanctions ever imposed in connection with North Korea.
This action targets the deceptive shipping practices that have enabled the Kim regime to fund its dangerous weapons programs. Our actions target shipping and trade companies, vessels, and individuals across the world who we know are working with North Korea’s behalf. Specifically, we are sanctioning 27 entities, 28 vessels, and 1 individual, all involved in sanctions evasions schemes.
Today’s actions will significantly hinder North Korea’s ability to conduct evasive maritime activities that facilitate illicit coal and fuel transports, and limit the regime’s ability to ship goods through international waters.
Our actions are part of the ongoing maximum economic pressure campaign to cut off sources of revenue that this regime derives from U.N. and U.S. prohibitive trade to fund its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
We are also issuing a global shipping advisory, in conjunction with the Coast Guard and the State Department, to put everyone on notice of North Korea’s illicit maritime tactics and underscore the significant sanctions risk of engaging in maritime business with North Korea.
We are releasing new imagery of the deceptive shipping practices used by those who aid and profit from illicit trade with North Korea. These images from December 2017 reveal ship-to-ship transfers of fuel and other products destined for North Korea in an attempt to evade sanctions. They shine a spotlight on the practices employed by the government of North Korea to falsify identifying information on ships and conceal illicit cargo.
These sanctions — evasion tactics are prohibited by U.S. Security Council resolutions, and we are fully committed to shutting down those who engage in trade with them.
Through today’s actions, we are putting companies and countries across the world on notice that this administration views compliance with U.S. and U.N. sanctions as a national security imperative. Those who trade with North Korea do so at their own peril.
The United States will leverage our economic strength to enforce President Trump’s directive that any company that chooses to help North Korea fund its nuclear and ballistic missile programs will not be allowed to do business with anyone in the United States.
Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program serves one goal: to keep him in power, even as his people starve and suffer. The United States will not sit idly by while he threatens American allies and territories.
This administration is committed to full, irreversible, and permanent denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And our actions today, against those who continue to fuel this rogue regime, amplifies our strong resolve to achieve that end.
And I’m happy to answer any questions.
Q Mr. Secretary, in recent weeks there seems to have been a little bit of a thaw, at least between South Korea and North Korea; their participation in the Olympic games. There hasn’t been a missile test, certainly not a nuclear test, in recent weeks. Why these sanctions, and why now, when it looked like there was the beginning of an opening, at least between South and North Korea?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Okay, well, I’d say, while we appreciate the fact that there haven’t been tests, that’s not exactly a terrific standard of what we’re applying.
It was very clear that this has been a directive that the President has issued, going back to his time at the U.N. When the Vice President was over in the region, he made it very clear that we were working on these sanctions. And as you know, there’s a huge process that goes into preparing these sanction packages. And as soon as they were ready, we were prepared to release them today.
Q Secretary Mnuchin, real quick question about the nuclear — you mentioned nuclear weapons. Do we have any specific — two questions. Do we have any specific example of this being used to enhance their nuclear program? Do you have specific examples of where they breached trade to do that?
Secondly, is there a linkage between a speech the President made earlier last week, when he said we’re going to be so far ahead of everyone else in nuclear like you’ve never seen before, far in excess of anyone else? Was he talking about North Korea?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, those are independent issues. Our capabilities are obviously — far surpass the rest of the world in those capabilities.
I’m not going to make any comments on direct — on the source of funds. But I can assure you that he is diverting money from the people of the country to support his programs.
Q Thank you very much. And thank you for doing this. This targets 27 entities, 27 vessels. When you talk about ship-to-ship, like the picture behind you there, give us some sort of scope or some context. Is that a small portion of the ships involved and the transfers involved? Is this a larger portion, or in the middle? How impactful, actually, is going after these 27 entities and these 28 vessels?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: This is very impactful. This is virtually all the ships they’re using at this moment in time. We will obviously continue to monitor and use all of our resources to monitor activities going forward. And we will do new sanctions as needed going forward.
But this is a very, very significant action, along with, I might just say, the advisory that the Coast Guard has worked on with us that we think will be very impactful.
Q If it’s virtually all of the ships, do you expect these ship-to-ship transfers to essentially be eliminated after this?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: We’re going to do everything to stop these ship-to-ship transfers.
Q Mr. Secretary, to that point, and using the words you just spoke, we will do everything to stop ship-to-ship transfers. Clearly, we have the intelligence to identify them. This feels like the economic equivalent of a blockade. Is that the next step? A military blockade to, in fact, block these ship-to-ship transfers if these sanctions are not effective?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I think, as the President has said before, we’re not going to announce in advance anything that we may do in the future on military actions. We are monitoring.
What I would say again is, right now we are using the full power of the United States economically, and working with our allies to cut them off economically. That’s the priority of the maximum pressure campaign at the moment.
Q Do you disagree with that characterization that it’s like an economic blockade?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I’m not going to confirm that. What I will say is we’re using all of our sanctions capabilities, and we will continue to do so, to economically cut off illicit activities.
Q I’ve got two questions for you, Mr. Secretary. The first is on the superlative, “largest.” Is that just purely the number of entities and vessels and companies that are being sanctioned? The President also called it the heaviest sanctions —
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I think we think it’s both the largest in number we’ve ever done against them, as well as impactful. I would just say that this brings up the total to over 450 sanctions that we have on North Korea. I would say approximately half of those have been done in the last year. So we’ve had sanctions since 2005. Under President Trump’s leadership, we’ve done half of those in the last year.
Q Mr. Secretary, some of those sanctions of Chinese companies and banks that have done hundreds of millions of dollars of business with the North are — I mean, when you say — so just from a superlative standpoint, wouldn’t those be bigger? Your argument is these are more impactful than taking action against a Chinese entity.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I’m not going to make any specifics. Again, Chinese entities, we will continue to look at them like everyone else. We expect people to follow through on the obligations of the U.N. sanctions and our sanctions programs.
Q Mr. Secretary, to what extent is Russia helping North Korea evade the sanctions?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I’m not going to make any comments specifically on that, other than to say that, obviously, Russia and China are two countries that have traded with them. And we are working actively with both of those.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. What indicators will you use to measure whether or not these sanctions are successful?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: We have both classified and unclassified indicators that we monitor, as to the success. And I will tell you, we believe that the economic sanctions are beginning to have a significant impact on their ability to fund their programs.
Q Could you let us know about some of the unclassified indicators that you use?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, in this setting I’m not prepared to go through the difference in classified and unclassified. But we’ll follow up.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Two questions for you. To follow up on Steve, why not blacklist Russian ships?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, we’re prepared to blacklist Russian ships to the extent there are Russian ships. So let me be clear. Whether they’re Russian ships, whether they’re Chinese ships, we don’t care whose ships they are. If we have intelligence that people are doing things, we will put sanctions on them and we will go forward with that.
Q And the second question on timing here, specifically today. This is a time, obviously, when the Olympics Closing Ceremonies are happening on the Korea Peninsula. The President’s daughter and senior advisor just arrived in South Korea. Is that timing more than a coincidence? Or are you trying to send a coordinated message by rolling these sanctions out today?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Well, first let me say, Ivanka Trump has been briefed on this. She’s been part of the team. She had dinner with President Moon. They had a private discussion in advance about this occurring. And this has been an interagency process.
So I think, as I said earlier, when the Vice President went over there, he announced these. These sanctions were not ready at the time. Had they been ready to release, we would have done them earlier. And there’s an extensive process, an enormous amount of work that’s been done with the intel community on an interagency basis to get where we are today.
In the back. Yes.
Q What are you going to do when you exhaust all the sanctions? In other words, what if it shows that it doesn’t work? What’s the next —
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I don’t think we’re going to make any comments on what our options are or aren’t in the future. We will continue — as we see things that should be sanctioned, I can assure you we will continue to roll our new sanctions.
So as you know, since I’ve been here, this has been an evolving process. And although we don’t comment on future sanctions, I can assure you we have a large team — the largest ever — dedicated at Treasury to focus on North Korea illicit activities. And as there are more actions that need to be sanctioned, we will do that in the future.
Q Mr. Secretary, you said that — do you mind going into a little bit more detail about Ivanka briefing the South Korean President? Does she have the proper security clearance to have been able to know what these sanctions were and brief the South Korean President?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Yeah, she has the appropriate access to brief President Moon.
Q Do you think the greatest effect by this will be military or economic?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I’m not going to comment on any military issues. I am going to comment that we think the economic activities are significant and the sanctions are working.
Q But you think there will be military —
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I’m not commenting one way or another. You shouldn’t interpret that.
Q Regarding North Korean people who are under the U.S. — under the sanctions, and Kim Yong-chol, who is the military chief in the North Korea. He was (inaudible) in South Korea. So he’s coming for the closing ceremony the 25th. So what is the U.S. position of this terrorist guys enter the South Korea? Do you have anything —
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: That’s for South Korea to decide. I’m not making any comments on that. But again, let me just emphasize, our actions are not against the people of North Korea. Our actions are against the leadership of North Korea and the illicit activities, and our commitment to have safety and security on the Peninsula.
Q Can you rule out the United States boarding and inspecting North Korean ships full stop?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: No, I cannot rule that out. So again, under the U.N. sanctions, with the consent of state flags, there are certain rights that we and other countries have. And I’m not ruling anything out.
Q Sorry, just with the consent of state flags. So say a ship doesn’t give you consent — it’s a North Korean ship and it’s suspect — do you rule out then boarding it forcibly?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I’m not going to make any comments on what the military may or may not do. I would direct you to — under the U.N. sanctions, we do have the right, with the consent of the state flag. And we will actively — and we expect states that, as we give them information, they de-flag the ships. I think that’s also something that’s very important.
Yes, in the back.
Q Do you believe these sanctions will create or will entice North Korea to have a change of heart?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I’m not going to speculate what their change of heart will be or won’t be. Again, what I’ve said is we do believe the sanctions work. There’s no question. The case of Iran, the sanctions and unified sanctions is what brought Iran to the table. We believe that the economic might of the United States and our allies, cutting them off will limit their ability to continue their programs.
Q What if some of these companies actually don’t have much economic exposure in the U.S.? What is there you can do to pressure them further?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: So again, I think, as you’re aware, we have the ability to do both primary sanctions and secondary sanctions. So if these companies are doing business in other places in the world and that is facilitated, we have the ability to cut off the banking system in other parts of the world. And we will look at that very seriously.
Q Mr. Secretary, are you right now actively considering any further designations under the Patriot Act, Section 311, of any banks or financial institutions (inaudible)?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, as a matter of policy, I’m not going to give specifics as to what we are considering and what we’re not considering. But I assure you, we are reviewing information as it associates with banks that are doing illicit activities.
Q Can I sneak one in on taxes while we have you here?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Go ahead.
Q Last time you were here was because of it. And there was supposed to be this calculator on the Treasury website — the IRS website — so that people could go and sort of figure it out.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Yeah, I’ve —
Q It hasn’t been posted yet. There’s this kind of turf battle between Treasury and IRS and OMB on how to deal with regulations on the tax code. Has this rollout gone as smoothly as you expected it?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Absolutely. So let me just comment. First of all, the calculator is on track. I think it’s being released next week.
STAFF MEMBER: Correct.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: It is being released next week. I think we’re going to give the press a demonstration of this.
And again, I would just emphasize — I think the rollout of the tax plan, we’ve had very close coordination between the IRS and our team at Treasury, and the White House and the OMB. I think there have been some articles about a memorandum of understanding that Treasury has had for 30 years with OMB.
But again, I assure you that Mick Mulvaney and I are working very closely together. And to the extent that it makes sense to reconsider how things have been done over the last 30 years, we’re already doing that.
Q And the President said today at CPAC that past administrations, when talking about the deficits and debt, have let it go to hell, I believe were his words. Yet the projections are still close to trillion-dollar deficits that are going to be racked up in the future years here. Is the administration on the same track as past ones?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Let me comment on that because I think that’s an important issue. Again, as we’ve said, the debt has gone from $10 trillion to $20 trillion over the last eight years. The President is concerned about that. A big component of that was spent in the Middle East on wars, as the President has talked about.
The President has been very clear that getting more money for the military was a major priority of his, and that’s something that was achieved. And as part of that, the Democrats required us to raise nonmilitary money. I think given the importance of what the President wanted to do with the military, that was critical that we get it done. And we’ll be looking at the issue of budget deficits going forward.
Q Mr. Secretary, while we’re on the subject of taxes, where is the administration on the idea of a 25-cent rise in the gas tax that the President has suggested in meetings with members of Congress?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I will tell you it’s something that’s being considered. There is no decision on that. I think, as some of you noted in my testimony, the President is focused on the idea of Internet sales tax. Again, let me just say, this is not a new tax. This is, most states have a sales or use tax, and the President wants to make sure that the states are getting the money that they deserve and that they can spend on infrastructure.
Q Another question on the gas tax. Do you, Mr. Secretary, believe it will be in any way economically harmful to raise it on — maybe keep it on a inflation-adjusted basis as some in the infrastructure community have suggested would be necessary?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, I would just comment, we haven’t had an increase in the gas tax in a long time. It’s one of the things that we’re looking at. It’s just one of the issues. We haven’t made any decisions.
Q Have you made any determinations on whether or not it would be economically harmful?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, we’ve done some analysis on it. But it’s on a preliminary basis, and nothing we’re prepared to decide on right now.
Why don’t we take —
Q Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Yes.
Q Mr. Secretary, can you update on the monitoring of the China-North Korea corridor that is the lifeline for North Korea, which is not monitored by any international organization?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I’m not going to comment on specifically what ability we have to monitor things and what ability we don’t. But I can assure you that we have a lot of capabilities.
Q Mr. Secretary, yesterday you met with our Prime Minister, and he quoted you as suggesting that 70 percent of the benefits of the tax cuts go to workers. He’s got a similar agenda he’s trying to get through back home. What’s the evidence to suggest that that flow-through is there for workers?
And secondly, on North Korea — the sanctions. You briefed him on that as well. Do you expect to have strong support from Australia on that —
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: I do. So I’ve known the Prime Minister for a long period of time. He is trying to focus on a very similar to economic agenda to what we’ve done. He explained to me how he’s lowered the corporate tax rate on the small- and medium-sized companies, and how he’s focused to do it on bigger companies. And he congratulated us on our success, and hopefully that will show the success for him there.
And we’ve talked about this statistic in the past. We believe that a major part of the burden of corporate taxes are borne by the workers.
And then on North Korea, we had a very productive discussion on North Korea. He’s very supportive, and we’ve encouraged him to work with us on sanctions and other areas.
So a very productive discussion. I know he’s looking forward to see the President today.
Q On that modeling, Mr. Secretary, with the 70 percent dividend that goes to workers that you mentioned to Malcolm Turnbull yesterday, is that all in wage growth or some other dividend?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: It’s mostly in wage growth.
All right. Why don’t I take one or two more questions? But I don’t want to leave here without emphasizing — you haven’t asked me yet — we are working on Russia sanctions. I can assure you that is in the process. I will be back here within the next several weeks to talk about that.
But again, I just want to emphasize, I think you know under Section 241, we did deliver both the unclassified and classified report. And as I’ve repeatedly said, we are working on sanctions as a follow-up to that.
So why don’t we take the last question.
Q (Inaudible) related to election meddling, sir? Is that what you —
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: We’ll continue to look at election meddling. I might just add we are closely working with the FBI on them giving information, as it relates to the recent suit. And as appropriate, we will look at sanctioning individuals from the information they had.
And I would also just comment, we already had sanctions against one of the very significant people that were on their list.
Q Sir, did the indictment change anything?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Didn’t change anything.
Thank you, everybody. Appreciate your help.
Q (Inaudible) Russian sanctions. Are they having anything to do with North Korea, or just, as Steven pointed out, about the election meddling?
SECRETARY MNUCHIN: Again, let me just say quickly, again, as it relates to North Korea, we’re looking at everybody the same. So the ability that we have under North Korea is not differentiated by country. We’ve done over 100 sanctions under our Ukraine and Russia abilities that we’ve done since the President has been in office. We will continue to look at those abilities, as well as the authority we’ve been given under CAATSA, which I think you know has huge bipartisan support, and election meddling.
Thank you very much.
12:01 P.M. EST