Asia Pacific

Diplomats hint at oil embargo if North Korea carries out more missile tests


Japan, South Korea and the United States will accelerate efforts to press China to mull possible new sanctions, including an oil ban, if North Korea carries out another nuclear test or launches a long-range ballistic missile, several diplomats have said.

In addition to an oil embargo for the first time, other options in a new U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution could include measures such as globally banning the North’s national airline, Air Koryo, prohibiting North Korean workers from working abroad, completely restricting its coal exports and ending seafood exports.

Currently, coal export restrictions are in place. Beijing, as the largest importer, recently agreed to the further suspension of coal transfers with its neighbor.

All the moves are meant to put a stranglehold on revenue that the isolated country has been able to use to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile technology at an increasingly alarming rate.

At the Security Council on Friday, the foreign ministers of the four countries, along with others representing the 15-member council, met for the first time ever to specifically address the concerns they had about Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and what should be done to prevent further provocations.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who presided over the meeting, called on the international community to “suspend the flow of North Korean guest workers and to impose bans on North Korean imports, and especially coal.” In his remarks he also noted that China has unique economic leverage as it is a partner in 90 percent of North Korea’s trade.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se suggested in the open meeting that changing the “strategic calculus” on Pyongyang involves taking measures like halting “the export and supply of crude oil” to the North and “suspending all imports of coal” from North Korea.

The last U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution adopted last November was touted as the harshest set of sanctions imposed on any country. Yet despite the moves, Pyongyang has continued to launch a series of ballistic missiles this year following two underground nuclear tests and 24 ballistic missile launches last year.

Beijing, which is North Korea’s primary economic and diplomatic benefactor, remains crucial to reining in the North’s nuclear ambitions although criticism has been directed at China for not fully implementing the measures that are in place.

“China is the key to making the sanctions effective,” one of the diplomats explained, questioning how serious China will be in backing such far-reaching sanctions measures.

The diplomat also said new sanctions will be imposed only if a sixth nuclear test or a successful intercontinental ballistic missile launch occurs. The latest launch, which apparently failed, took place Saturday morning.

However, it is doubtful that new sanctions will be put in place if another launch failed.

Another diplomat believes Beijing will “try its best to bring Pyongyang back to a situation in which it is less provocative and more reasonable” but noted that “it is difficult to know now what the Chinese position will be on new sanctions.”

That diplomat suggested it could be a situation “in which the six-party talks can be even revived,” but will depend on key players. The six-party talks, which involved both Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the United States, and aimed to denuclearize the peninsula, have been stalled for years.

In line with past practices, should a new sanctions resolution go forward, the Security Council will also likely add new names and entities to a growing blacklist, the diplomats said.

Friday’s council meeting has taken place against the backdrop of a bilateral meeting held between U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping in Florida earlier this month.

Since then, the two leaders have spoken by phone over concerns they have about forging a way forward, especially as fears are heightened that a sixth nuclear test or long-range missile launch could be successfully carried out at a tense time.

The North has ramped up its rhetoric in light of heated exchanges with the United States, which under Trump has taken a firmer stand and shown force by striking Syria and Afghanistan with missiles recently.

On Wednesday, Trump summoned all 100 U.S. senators to discuss how best to deal with the isolated country should it follow through with its threats.