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Are Obama's 'Broad and Powerful' North Korea Sanctions Tough Enough?

WASHINGTON — After the assessment of some experts that the hacking of Sony Pictures was likely an inside job, President Obama levied new sanctions against North Korea today for the “provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies of the Government of North Korea, including its destructive, coercive cyber-related actions during November and December 2014.”

The FBI has stood by its assessment that Pyongyang, not a disgruntled former employee, is behind the hacking that warned the studio not to release The Interview.

A senior administration official told reporters on a conference call today that “this attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment clearly crossed a threshold for us, one, primarily due to its destructive and coercive nature.”

“We felt the need very strongly to take decisive action in this area to respond to this attack. But you should also see this imposition of sanctions and other things as part of our broader efforts to raise the baseline level of cyber security across the country and really tackle these threats head-on.”

In accordance with the executive order, the Treasury Department designated three entities and 10 individuals as being agencies or officials of the North Korean government.

The entities are the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the regime’s primary intelligence organization; the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, the country’s primary arms dealer and exporter of equipment for ballistic missiles and conventional weapons; and the Korea Tangun Trading Corporation, which is “primarily responsible for the procurement of commodities and technologies to support North Korea’s defense research and development programs.”

The sanctioned officials including two government representatives stationed in Iran, Kim Yong Chol and Jang Yong Son; one stationed in Russia, Jang Song Chol, who is working weapons deals with Sudan; and Ryu Jin and Kang Ryong, North Korean government officials stationed in Syria.

The sanctions deny those designated access to the U.S. financial system and prohibit any dealings with U.S. persons.

An administration official said they don’t know if any of the sanctioned individuals have holdings in the U.S., adding that financial institutions will now “scour their records” to check.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said it was “good to see the administration challenging North Korea’s latest aggression – cyberattacks that can do grave damage.”

“But many of the North Koreans blacklisted today have already been targeted by U.S. sanctions,” Royce said. “We need to go further to sanction those financial institutions in Asia and beyond that are supporting the brutal and dangerous North Korean regime, as was done in 2005. My comprehensive legislation that the House passed last year would give the administration the tools to do just that.”

The North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, which passed the lower chamber in July, aims to crack down on Pyongyang’s access to hard currency and other goods that keep the regime afloat.

The GOP majority in Congress comes into session Tuesday, meaning that Obama could soon be faced with legislation tougher than his executive order.

The administration insisted, though, that it put a “broad and powerful” tool into place today.

“Today’s actions are driven by our commitment to hold North Korea accountable for its destructive and destabilizing conduct,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement. “Even as the FBI continues its investigation into the cyber-attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, these steps underscore that we will employ a broad set of tools to defend U.S. businesses and citizens, and to respond to attempts to undermine our values or threaten the national security of the United States.”

“The actions taken today under the authority of the president’s new Executive Order will further isolate key North Korean entities and disrupt the activities of close to a dozen critical North Korean operatives. We will continue to use this broad and powerful tool to expose the activities of North Korean government officials and entities.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest added that they “take seriously North Korea’s attack that aimed to create destructive financial effects on a U.S. company and to threaten artists and other individuals with the goal of restricting their right to free expression.”

“As the president has said, our response to North Korea’s attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment will be proportional, and will take place at a time and in a manner of our choosing,” Earnest added. “Today’s actions are the first aspect of our response.”

The administration said the sanctions “will of course be accompanied by a range of diplomatic activities in which we’ll encourage governments around the world to align their responses to North Korea’s illicit programs and provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies with the ones that we’re taking.”

The sanctions are intended to build upon 2005 sanctions that target entities in North Korea that are involved in nuclear ballistic missile proliferation and a 2010 executive order focused on the arms trade, luxury goods procurement, money laundering and cash smuggling.

“What the executive order that was adopted today will allow us to do is to impose sanctions on any person who is an official of the government of North Korea, any entity that is part of the government of North Korea, any official of the Korea Workers Party, which is the — I would say the party that governs North Korea, as well as any person, you know, within or outside North Korea, that is owned or controlled by the North Korean government or provide material support to the North Korean government or acts for or on behalf of the North Korean government,” a senior administration official said.