US official: Trump administration weighing broad sanctions against North Korea

WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) - The Trump administration is considering sweeping sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system as part of a broad review of measures to counter Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threat, a senior U.S. official said on Monday.

The sanctions would be part of a multi-pronged approach of increased economic and diplomatic pressure – especially on Chinese banks and firms that do the most business with North Korea – plus beefed-up defenses by the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies, according to the administration official familiar with the deliberations.

While the long-standing option of pre-emptive military strikes against North Korea is not off the table – as reflected by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's warning to Pyongyang during his Asia tour last week - the new administration is giving priority for now to less-risky options.

See more on North Korea:

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Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
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Inside North Korea's secretive missile program
A missile is carried by a military vehicle during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Engineers check the base of Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
A North Korean scientist looks at a monitor showing the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre of the Korean Committee of Space Technology on the outskirts of Pyongyang April 11, 2012. North Korea said on Wednesday it was injecting fuel into a long-range rocket ahead of a launch condemned by its neighbours and the West. The launch is set to take place between Thursday and next Monday and has prompted neighbours such as the Philippines to re-route their air traffic. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
North Korean soldiers salute in a military vehicle carrying a missile during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Ko Yun-hwa (L), Administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sales assistant watches TV sets broadcasting a news report on North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Workers construct a new nuclear reactor in the North Korean village of Kumho in this file photo taken August 7, 2002. The United States urged North Korea December 21, 2002 not to restart a nuclear reactor suspected of being used to make weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that North Korea had disabled surveillance devices the agency had placed at the five-megawatt Nyongbyong reactor. REUTERS/Lee Jae-won/File Photo LJW/RCS/AA
A passenger walks past a television report on North Korea's nuclear test at a railway station in Seoul February 12, 2013. North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday, South Korea's defence ministry said, after seismic activity measuring 4.9 magnitude was registered by the U.S. Geological Survey. The epicentre of the seismic activity, which was only one km below the Earth's surface, was close to the North's known nuclear test site. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A scientist stands beside the Kwangmyongsong-3 application satellite, to be put onto the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
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The policy recommendations being assembled by President Donald Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, are expected to reach the president's desk within weeks, possibly before a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early April, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. North Korea is expected to top the agenda at that meeting.

It is not clear how quickly Trump will decide on a course of action, which could be delayed by the slow pace at which the administration is filling key national security jobs.

The White House declined comment.

Trump met McMaster on Saturday to discuss North Korea and said afterward that the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, was "acting very, very badly."

The president spoke hours after North Korea boasted of a successful rocket-engine test, which officials and experts think is part of a program aimed at building an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States.

'SECONDARY SANCTIONS'

The administration source said U.S. officials, including Tillerson, had privately warned China about broader "secondary sanctions" that would target banks and other companies that do business with North Korea, most of which are Chinese.

The move under consideration would mark an escalation of Trump's pressure on China to do more to contain North Korea. It was not clear how Chinese officials responded to those warnings but Beijing has made clear its strong opposition to such moves.

RELATED: Poll - How much of a threat does North Korea pose to the United States?

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the situation on the Korean peninsula was at a crossroads and there were two prospects.

One, she said, was that the relevant parties could continue to "escalate toward conflict and potential war."

SEE ALSO: North Korea's Kim Jong Un says engine test is 'new birth' of rocket industry

"The other choice is that all sides can cool down and jointly pull the Korean nuclear issue back to a path of political and diplomatic resolution," Hua told a daily news briefing on Tuesday.

China would strictly and comprehensively implement its duties under the U.N. Security Council resolutions, which meant implementing sanctions but also making efforts to get back to talks, she added.

The objective of the U.S. move being considered would be to tighten the screws in the same way that the widening of sanctions - to encompass foreign firms dealing with Iran - was used to pressure Tehran to open negotiations with the West on its suspected nuclear weapons program. That effort ultimately led to a 2015 deal to restrict Iran's nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

For such measures to have any chance to influence the behavior of North Korea, which is already under heavy sanctions, Washington must secure full international cooperation - especially from China, which has shown little appetite for putting such a squeeze on its neighbor.

Analysts also have questioned whether such sanctions would be as effective on North Korea as they were on a major oil producer such as Iran, given the isolated nation's limited links to the world financial system.

RELATED: North Korea's obsession with huge, intricate buildings

25 PHOTOS
North Korea's obsession with huge, intricate buildings
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North Korea's obsession with huge, intricate buildings

Entering the capital city of Pyongyang, visitors pass through the Arch of Reunification. The two women holding a conjoined North and South Korea symbolize supreme leader Kim Il Sung's vision for the two countries.

(Photo by Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images)

Immediately, visitors are struck by the Workers' Party Monument. The outer belt reads, "Long live the Workers' Party of Korea, the organizer and guide of all victories of the Korean people!"

(Photo by Mark Edward Harris/Getty Images)

Downtown Pyongyang's skyline is punctuated by the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, currently the tallest abandoned building in the world. It hasn't had any work done on it since 1992.

(Photo via REUTERS/Bobby Yip)

On the other side of the city, the 558-feet-tall Juche Tower looms above the Taedong River.

(Photo by Tim Johnson/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Some of North Korea's most impressive (and intimidating) architecture lives in the city center, such as the sprawling Manyongdae Children's Palace. It features two "arms" meant to imitate a mother's embrace.

(Photo by NK News/Getty Images)

North Korea doesn't have enough of its own electricity, so at night the entire country goes pitch black. What little remains goes toward illuminating a picture of the country's founder, Kim Il-Sung.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

These buildings wouldn't be possible without the thousands of laborers who are forced to work long hours to build them.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

The conditions are often poor, if not downright treacherous.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Much of the country's architecture is meant to honor North Korea's leaders, Kim Il-Sung, who led between 1972 and 1994, and Kim Jong Il, who followed Sung until his own death in 2011.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

The two men are proudly memorialized all around Pyongyang, most obviously at the People's Grand Assembly Hall.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Nearby is the Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which celebrates Korea's victory over the imperialist American forces during the Korean War.

(Photo by Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images)

One building in central Pyongyang reads, "The great comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will be with us forever."

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Disregarding the blatant propaganda, there are many aspects of North Korean architecture that are genuinely impressive. The metro station is among the most ornate in the world.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, North Korea is also home to the largest sports arena in the world, May Day Stadium.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

Filled to capacity, it's capable of holding 150,000 people. Most often, it's used for the annual Mass Games, which pay tribute to the country's history.

(Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid the bleakness of everyday life, people also manage to find time to have fun at the Munsu Water Park.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

Science also plays a big role in North Korea. The Sci-Tech Complex, for example, was built in the shape of an atom and opened in early 2015.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

The country's leader, Kim Jong Un, has said he hopes the center will help "advance the establishment of a rich and powerful fatherland through the locomotive of science and technology."

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

The structure joins the Mirae Scientists Street, which North Korea wants to use as its hub for becoming a global force in innovation.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

Some apartment buildings sport solar panels.

(Photo via REUTERS/Staff)

Many of the buildings stand out for their bold color palettes and industrial feel.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

But others, like the Wonsan Baby Home and Orphanage, opt instead for bright pastels.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

Completed in June of 2015, the home is spread across several floors. Its blues and yellows stand in stark relief to the concrete that dominates so much of North Korea's landscape.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

Whatever bright spots there may be, from far away the skyline clearly reveals North Korea's obsession with power and might.

(Photo credit ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

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North Korea has relied heavily on illicit trade done via small Chinese banks. So, to be applied successfully, the new measures would have to threaten to bar those banks from the international financial system.

Also under consideration are expanded efforts to seize assets of Kim and his family outside North Korea, the official said.

MILITARY OPTIONS

The military dimension of the review includes a strengthened U.S. presence in the region and deployment of advanced missile defenses, initially in South Korea and possibly in Japan. The U.S. military has begun to install a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system in South Korea, despite Chinese opposition.

Washington is increasingly concerned, however, that the winner of South Korea's May 9 presidential election might backtrack on the deployment and be less supportive of tougher sanctions.

Tillerson warned on Friday that Washington had not ruled out military action if the threat from North Korea becomes unacceptable.

RELATED: Major cities in range of North Korea's missiles

For now, U.S. officials consider pre-emptive strikes too risky, given the danger of igniting a regional war and causing massive casualties in Japan and South Korea and among tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in both allied countries.

Another U.S. government source said Trump could also opt to escalate cyber attacks and other covert action aimed at undermining North Korea's leadership.

SEE ALSO: Trump: North Korea is 'behaving very badly,' and China 'has done little to help'

"These options are not done as stand-alones," the first U.S. official said. "It's going to be some form of 'all of the above,' probably excluding military action."

Trump is known to have little patience for foreign policy details, but officials say he seems to have heeded a warning from his predecessor, Barack Obama, that North Korea would be the most urgent international issue he would face.

In his North Korea briefings, Trump has asked repeatedly how many nuclear warheads and missiles Pyongyang has, at the same time as demanding to know how much South Korea and Japan are paying for their own defense, one U.S. official said.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by John Walcott, and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Kieran Murray, Peter Cooney and Nick Macfie)

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