WASHINGTON (AP) -- With little apparent progress in denuclearization talks with North Korea, the Trump administration on Wednesday stepped up pressure on the isolated nation by punishing three foreign companies accused of helping the North evade international sanctions.
The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the companies, which are based in China, Russia and Singapore, as well as the head of the Russian firm, that block any assets they may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them.
The move came as the administration continues to press for full compliance with international sanctions against North Korea even as it seeks movement from Pyongyang on the denuclearization commitment North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gave to President Donald Trump at their June summit in Singapore.
"Treasury will continue to implement existing sanctions on North Korea, and will take action to block and designate companies, ports and vessels that facilitate illicit shipments and provide revenue streams to the DPRK," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement, using the initials of the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "Consequences for violating these sanctions will remain in place until we have achieved the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea."
Two months since the Trump-Kim summit, there has been little visible evidence of progress on denuclearization. While the North has maintained its halt on nuclear and missile tests, and has made some goodwill gestures -- returning the suspected remains of American soldiers killed during the Korean War and dismantling some parts of a missile engine facility -- it has yet to roll back its nuclear weapons program.
Instead, it has railed against U.S. demands, arguing that it has already made concessions that must be reciprocated with sanctions relief if it is to make more. The administration has countered, as Mnuchin did in his statement on Wednesday, that sanctions will not be lifted until denuclearization is complete.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made that point repeatedly, including immediately after the last of his three visits to Pyongyang last month and earlier this month at an Asian security forum in Singapore. Pompeo has said that while sanctions relief must wait for denuclearization, other confidence-building steps are possible beforehand.
He has refused to say what those might be, but North Korea and South Korea, which held a high-level meeting earlier this week to organize a new summit between their leaders in September, are pushing for a declaration of the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended with an armistice and not a peace treaty. The U.S. has been coy on whether it might go along with such a declaration, which would fall short of a formal treaty and would not be legally binding.
On Tuesday, after Pompeo spoke to South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha to review the latest round of North-South talks, the State Department said the U.S. was open to a "peace mechanism" but is more concerned with denuclearization.
"We support a peace regime, a peace mechanism by which countries can move forward toward peace," department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. "But what our focus is, our main focus is on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and that's something we've been very clear with many governments about."
Pompeo, in a tweet about his phone call with Kang, said the U.S. and South Korea would continue to cooperate closely on "the final, fully verified denuclearization" of North Korea but stopped short of claiming progress on that front.
"We believe progress can be made," he said.
In the apparent absence of progress, Treasury moved ahead Wednesday with the new sanctions.
The companies targeted are the China-based Dalian Sun Moon Star International Logistics Trading Co. and its Singapore-based affiliate, SINSMS Ltd., along with Russia's Profinet Ltd. and its director general. They are accused of helping North Korea evade international sanctions by re-routing exports and imports through Chinese and Russian ports.
Treasury said the Chinese company and its Singaporean affiliate had used false shipping documents to export alcohol and tobacco products to North Korea in violation of international sanctions.
It said the Russian firm and its director, Vasili Aleksandrovich Kolchanov, provided port services at least six times to North Korean-flagged vessels engaged in sanctions-busting oil shipments.