WASHINGTON (AP) - In the midst of increasingly aggressive North Korean missile launches this week, the U.S. on Friday imposed sanctions on people and firms in Asia accused of helping North Korea procure fuel in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control targeted two people and three firms from Singapore, Taiwan and the Marshall Islands.
The U.S. accused them of moving fuel through an "illicit ship-to-ship transfer" that circumvents United Nations sanctions restricting the import of petroleum products and supports the development of North Korea's weapons programs and military.
The sanctions are the first directed toward the isolated Asian country since the start of its most recent round of missile launches - six rounds of tests in less than two weeks.
North Korea also flew 12 warplanes near its border with South Korea on Thursday, prompting the South to scramble 30 military aircraft in response, Seoul officials said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said North Korea "continues its unprecedented pace, scale, and scope of ballistic missile launches this year," adding that it has launched 41 ballistic missiles this year alone.
Tensions have risen quickly on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea's recent missile tests prompted South Korea, the U.S. and Japan to conduct joint drills in response.
The sanctioned companies are the Marshall Islands-based New Eastern Shipping Co. Ltd., and Singapore-registered Anfasar Trading (S) Pte. Ltd. and Swanseas Port Services Pte. Ltd. The U.S. also targeted Singapore-based Kwek Kee Seng and Taiwan-based Chen Shih Huan for coordinating the deliveries.
Among other things, the sanctions deny them access to any property or financial assets held in the U.S. and prevent U.S. companies and people from doing business with them.
Brian Nelson, Treasury's under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said North Korea's ballistic missile launches "demonstrate a continued disregard for United Nations Security Council resolutions."
"The United States will continue to enforce multilateral sanctions and pursue the DPRK's sanctions evasion efforts worldwide, including by designating those who support these activities."