As the world watches each new North Korean development with bated breath, the Trump administration is reportedly preparing new economic sanctions which could be used in lieu of military force to de-nuclearize the country.
According to Reuters, the sanctions could include a potential oil embargo, intercepting cargo ships headed to North Korea, a ban on the country's airline, Air Koryo, and punishments for Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang.
Despite sending a naval force to the Korean peninsula, the Trump administration is focusing its North Korea strategy on tougher economic sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, banning its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, U.S. officials say.
U.S. President Donald Trump has approved a preliminary broad approach on North Korea and asked his national security team to craft a more detailed framework for new international sanctions and other actions to counter Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, one official said.
"There's a whole host of things that are possible, all the way up to what's essentially a trade quarantine on North Korea," the official told Reuters on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Of course, the U.N. could also impose economic sanctions that would include an embargo on oil supplies to North Korea; a global ban on Air Koryo; and interdiction of North Korean freighters on the high seas, a step that would go beyond an existing requirement for nations to inspect ships transiting their territory. The United Nations could also prohibit the use of North Korean contracted labor abroad and expand the restrictions on coal exports to a total ban, officials told Reuters.
Another step could be a ban on North Korean seafood exports, Pyongyang's fourth-largest export to China, its main trading partner, and expanded efforts to seize assets of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his family.
Meanwhile, as a former U.S. State Department official points out, when it comes to economic sanctions, half measures rarely work.
Some analysts cautioned that targeting Chinese entities with so-called "secondary sanctions" could backfire and make Beijing less willing to cooperate, and that dealing with a country that already has nuclear weapons differs from dealing with one accused of trying acquire them.
"If you want to rely on sanctions to achieve your goal, you have to find a way to persuade or force the world into going all the way to a near full embargo or at least an embargo on key commodities like petroleum and on North Korean hard currency export earnings," said Joseph DeThomas, a former State Department official who worked on Iran and North Korea sanctions.
"Only if the regime sees continuation of sanctions as fatal will it consider change," he said.
Of course, news of economic sanctions comes as Trump's "armada" is still en route to the Korean peninsula. And while the White House seems to be open to diplomatic measures, with the assistance of China, U.S. officials have confirmed that military options remain on the table with pre-emptive strikes on North Korea remaining a last resort....a threat which Trump seemingly confirmed personally over Twitter earlier this morning.
I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will! U.S.A.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 13, 2017
Meanwhile, China has already taken steps to cut off imports of North Korean coal shipments with customs data in Beijing on Thursday showing that imports had plunged 52% in the first three months in 2017. But while China seems to be cooperating with diplomatic efforts to reign in North Korea's "crazy fat kid", as John McCain has described him, they've consistently warned the U.S. against the use of military force.
China, North Korea's sole major ally and benefactor, which nevertheless opposes its weapons programme, has called for talks leading to a peaceful resolution and the denuclearisation of the peninsula.
"Military force cannot resolve the issue," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing.
"Amid challenge there is opportunity. Amid tensions we will also find a kind of opportunity to return to talks."
"Whoever provokes the situation, whoever continues to make trouble in this place, they will have to assume historical responsibility," Wang said.
"As soon as North Korea complies with China's declared advice and suspends nuclear activities ... China will actively work to protect the security of a denuclearised North Korean nation and regime," said an editorial in the Global Times, which is published by the Communist party's People's Daily
So the only question now is: who will blink first?