North Korea’s effort to circumvent United Nations international sanctions on its nuclear and missile programs is complex but could be defeated by targeting relatively few Chinese companies, a report said on Monday.

The Washington-based C4ADS think-tank said a small number of interconnected Chinese firms accounted for the vast proportion of trade with North Korea, leaving the impoverished country’s procurement network vulnerable to targeted, enforced sanctions.

The report said it was a mistake to think that sanctions could not succeed against a country like North Korea, which was less isolated than it appeared.

“A concerted effort by the international community to target specific sanctions-violating entities is needed,” it said.

North Korea has been conducting missile tests at an unprecedented pace in the past year and has said it’s goal is to build a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and striking the mainland United States. The North maintains it’s under threat from the US and its allies.

Washington has been pressing China — North Korea’s neighbour, ally and main trading partner — to further curb trade with the country, but has so far stopped short of an all-out campaign of “secondary sanctions” against Chinese entities violating UN sanctions.

Read: In China’s Shadow. Exposing North Korean Overseas Networks 

US President Donald Trump’s administration has become increasingly alarmed about North Korea and top US officials have been pushing that theme this week as the C4ADS think-tank released its report. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday that North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs were the “most urgent” threat to national security.

“The regime’s nuclear weapons program is a clear and present danger to all, and the regime’s provocative actions, manifestly illegal under international law, have not abated despite United Nations’ censure and sanctions,” Mattis said in a written statement to the House Armed Services Committee.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated image. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon said on Tuesday in Tokyo that North Korea’s nuclear and missile program make the reclusive state a global threat. He was in Japan to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s top national security adviser, Shotaro Yachi.

Naming names

The C4ADS report said 5,233 Chinese companies traded with North Korea from 2013-2016, compared with the 67,163 that exported to South Korea.

A disproportionate amount of the total trade with North Korea was conducted by an even smaller number of trading firms, with 10 Chinese importers of North Korean goods in 2016 accounting for 30 percent of the market.

It said the top 10 Chinese exporters to North Korea had held that status for at least three or four years since 2013.

“By isolating firms that have sent potential dual-use weapons technology to the regime, it may be possible to identify sanctions violations and the North Korean overseas networks that surround them,” the report said.

It pointed to one Chinese firm, Dandong Dongyuan Industrial Co., which according to Chinese trade figures sent $28.5 million worth of material to North Korea from 2013-2016, including a shipment of $790,000 of “radio navigational aid apparatus” in June 2016.

It quoted experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the United States as saying the category of goods could cover guidance devices for ballistic missiles.

The report also said that, according to the Hong Kong business registry, the firm’s owner, Chinese national Sun Sidong, owned a firm that used to own a ship seized last year by Egyptian authorities carrying 30,000 North Korean-made rocket propelled grenades hidden under a cargo of iron ore.

C4ADS said that when the vessel, the Jie Shun, was seized, its registered owner was a firm owned by Sun Sihong, who listed her residential address as an apartment in the same complex as Sun Sidong.

Asked about the report, the U.S. Treasury declined to discuss future sanctions plans but said Washington would “continue to target individuals and entities responsible for financing and supporting North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.”

Rodman’s back

Adding a different twist to the North Korean issue, former National Basketball Association star Dennis Rodman said on Tuesday he was on his way to North Korea as a private citizen, returning to the isolated country where he has previously met leader Kim Jong Un.

Rodman was mobbed by journalists when he arrived at Beijing’s airport on Tuesday to catch a flight for the North Korean capital.

“I’m just trying to open the door,” Rodman told reporters wearing sunglasses, a dark shirt and baseball cap, and with facial piercings.

Former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman speaks to the media as he leaves for North Korea's Pyongyang, at Beijing Capital International Airport, China, June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman as he leaves for North Korea at Beijing Capital International Airport, China, June 13, 2017. Reuters/Jason Lee

“My purpose is to actually to see if I can keep bringing sports to North Korea, so that’s the main thing,” said Rodman, who was escorted through customs and immigration by two handlers.

Rodman appeared twice on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” show and praised Trump on Twitter during last year’s election campaign.

“I am pretty much sure that he is happy with the fact that I am over here trying to accomplish something that we both need,” Rodman said, when asked on Tuesday if he had spoken with Trump.

Shannon in Tokyo said Rodman was travelling as a private citizen.

“We are aware of his visit. We wish him well. But we have issued travel warnings to Americans and suggested they not travel to North Korea for their own safety,” he said.

Four Americans are being held in North Korea, including 22-year-old student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years hard labour for attempting to steal a propaganda banner.

Rodman said in a tweet that he would “discuss my mission upon my return to the USA.”