U.S., North Korean neighbors step up campaign of isolation

AP, Reuters, Kyodo

Bolstered by new U.N. sanctions, the United States and North Korea’s neighbors are joining in a fresh attempt to isolate Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs, in a global pressure campaign being cheered on by U.S. President Donald Trump.

After weeks of U.S. frustration over China’s reluctance to take action, Trump’s strategy of relying on Beijing’s help showed early signs of paying off. The White House praised China’s move to join a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution slapping new sanctions that could cut off about one-third of the North’s roughly $3 billion in annual exports.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called the resolution “the single largest economic sanctions package ever leveled against the North Korean regime” and “the most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday hailed the sanctions, saying the resolution “clearly shows the international community’s intention to raise pressure (on North Korea) to a higher level.”

Trump, meanwhile, took to Twitter to laud the sanctions’ passage.

“China and Russia voted with us. Very big financial impact!” Trump wrote in a tweet in comments echoed by the White House, where officials said the sanctions were just the start of an amped-up bid to squeeze Pyongyang diplomatically and economically.

The sanctions move played out as foreign ministers from across Asia gathered Sunday for a regional summit in the Philippines, where concerns about North Korea were dominating the agenda.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday called the sanctions the right response to a series of missile tests, but noted that dialogue was vital to resolve a complex and sensitive issue now at a “critical juncture.”

Wang said the U.N. resolution’s call for a return to talks emphasized that diplomatic and peaceful means were necessary to avoid tensions and it was necessary to prevent the crisis from escalating.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Saturday that could slash by a third the Asian state’s $3 billion annual export revenue over Pyongyang’s two July intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

“After the implementation of the resolutions, the Korean Peninsula issue enters into a critical juncture,” Wang told reporters on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers’ meeting in Manila.

“We call on all sides to take a responsible attitude when making judgments and taking actions. … We cannot do one and neglect the other. Sanctions are needed but sanctions are not the final goal,” Wang said.

North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

The latest, U.S.-drafted resolution bans North Korean exports of coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood and prohibits countries from hiring additional North Korean laborers. It also bans new joint ventures with North Korea.

The North Korea standoff was expected to dominate Monday’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which gathers 27 foreign ministers — including those of Japan, Russia, the United States, China and North and South Korea — to discuss security issues.

Wang met his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, on Sunday for bilateral talks that started off in a cordial way, with Ri smiling continuously as the two shook hands. Wang placed his hand on Ri’s shoulder as the two entered a meeting room.

“We actually had very thorough talks,” Wang said afterward. “The Chinese side urged the North Korean side to calmly handle the resolutions the U.N. Security Council just made toward North Korea and to not do anything unbeneficial toward the international community such as a nuclear test.”

He declined to say what Ri had told him.

Wang earlier said it was important that Ri is attending the Manila meetings “so he can listen to suggestions from various parties and has the right to present his views.”

But it was not immediately clear if Ri planned to meet ministers of other countries in Manila. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha expressed hope the two could talk.

Kang met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier Sunday and both expressed satisfaction with the passing of the tougher U.N sanctions. Tillerson described it as “a good outcome” and Kang weighed in, adding “it was a very, very good outcome.”

The United States, which has long maintained that China has not done enough to rein in North Korea, negotiated with China for a month on the new resolution.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton said in Manila that China’s support showed it recognized the gravity of the situation, but it was incumbent upon Beijing to ensure the sanctions were implemented.

Wang said there was now a “high level of sensitivity and complexity” that had hurt China’s relations with North Korea.

He said he hoped all parties involved could seriously consider China’s dual suspension proposal, whereby North Korea halts its nuclear and missile tests and for South Korea and the United States to stop joint military drills, as a precursor to dialogue.

“This is currently the most realistic and plausible initiative and it is the most reasonable and friendly solution,” he said.

Haley ruled that out Saturday, saying Washington would continue to take “prudent defensive measures,” including joint military drills with South Korea.

Experts say that both Moscow and Beijing would be pushing hard for dialogue with Pyongyang.

“I would think China and Russia signed on the sanctions hoping that they would force North Korea back to the negotiating table,” said Thomas Byrne, president of the New York-based Korea Society. “However, North Korea will try to evade the new sanctions.”

Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho, however, restated Tokyo’s belief that now is not the right time to seek dialogue with North Korea but to ratchet up pressure on it.

“It is clear to everyone at this point that North Korea is nowhere near to resuming a meaningful dialogue. In order to change North Korea’s behavior, we have no choice but to continue to increase pressure,” he said.