North Korea warns U.S. as U.N. gears up to slap Pyongyang with heavier sanctions

Reuters, Kyodo

The United Nations Security Council is set to vote Monday afternoon on a watered-down U.S.-drafted resolution to impose new sanctions on North Korea over its latest nuclear test, diplomats said, but it was unclear whether China and Russia would support it.

The draft resolution appears to have been weakened in a bid to appease Pyongyang’s allies Beijing and Moscow following negotiations over the past few days.

In order to pass, a resolution needs nine of the 15 Security Council members to vote in favor and no vetoes by any of the five permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.

The draft, seen Sunday, no longer proposes blacklisting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The initial draft proposed he be subjected to a travel ban and asset freeze along with four other North Korea officials. The final text only lists one of those officials.

The draft text still proposes a ban on textile exports, which were North Korea’s second-biggest export after coal and other minerals in 2016, totaling $752 million, according to data from the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. Nearly 80 percent of the textile exports went to China.

The draft drops a proposed oil embargo and instead intends to impose a ban on condensates and natural gas liquids, a cap of 2 million barrels a year on refined petroleum products, and a cap on crude oil exports to North Korea at current levels.

China supplies most of North Korea’s crude. According to South Korean data, Beijing supplies roughly 500,000 tons of crude oil annually. It also exports 200,000 tons of oil products, according to U.N. data. Russia’s exports of crude oil to North Korea are about 40,000 tons a year.

The draft resolution also no longer proposes an asset freeze on the military-controlled national airline Air Koryo.

Since 2006, the Security Council has unanimously adopted eight resolutions ratcheting up sanctions on North Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

The Security Council last month imposed new sanctions over North Korea’s two long-range missile launches in July. The Aug. 5 resolution aimed to slash by a third Pyongyang’s $3 billion annual export revenue by banning coal, iron, lead and seafood.

The new draft resolution drops a bid to remove an exception for transshipments of Russian coal via the North Korean port of Rajin. In 2013 Russia reopened a railway link with North Korea, from the Russian eastern border town of Khasan to Rajin, to export coal and import goods from South Korea and elsewhere.

The original draft resolution would have authorized states to use all necessary measures to intercept and inspect on the high seas vessels that have been blacklisted by the council.

However, the final draft text calls upon states to inspect vessels on the high seas with the consent of the flag state, if there’s information that provides reasonable grounds to believe the ship is carrying prohibited cargo.

The Aug. 5 resolution adopted by the council capped the number of North Koreans working abroad at the current level. The new draft resolution initially imposed a complete ban on the hiring and payment of North Korean laborers abroad.

The final draft text to be voted on Monday by the council would require the employment of North Korean workers abroad to be authorized by a Security Council committee.

However, this rule would not apply to “written contracts finalized prior to the adoption of this resolution” provided that states notify the committee by Dec. 15 of the number of North Koreans subject to these contracts and the anticipated date of termination of these contracts.

Some diplomats estimate that between 60,000 and 100,000 North Koreans work abroad. A U.N. human rights investigator said in 2015 that North Korea was forcing more than 50,000 people to work abroad, mainly in Russia and China, earning between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion a year. The wages of workers sent abroad provide foreign currency for the Pyongyang government.

There is new political language in the final draft urging “further work to reduce tensions so as to advance the prospects for a comprehensive settlement” and underscoring “the imperative of achieving the goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.”

Earlier, the North warned the U.S. that it would pay a “due price” for spearheading the latest U.N. resolution.

South Korean officials have said after the North’s sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3, which it said was of an advanced hydrogen bomb, that it could launch another intercontinental ballistic missile in defiance of international pressure.

The North’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said the United States was “going frantic” to manipulate the Security Council over Pyongyang’s nuclear test, which it said was part of “legitimate self-defensive measures.”

“In case the U.S. eventually does rig up the illegal and unlawful ‘resolution’ on harsher sanctions, the DPRK shall make absolutely sure that the U.S. pays due price,” the spokesman said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

DPRK is the abbreviation for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“The world will witness how the DPRK tames the U.S. gangsters by taking a series of actions tougher than they have ever envisaged,” the unnamed spokesman said.

“The DPRK has developed and perfected the super-powerful thermo-nuclear weapon as a means to deter the ever-increasing hostile moves and nuclear threat of the U.S. and defuse the danger of nuclear war looming over the Korean peninsula and the region.”

There was no independent verification of the North’s claim to have conducted a hydrogen bomb test, but some experts and officials have said there is enough strong evidence to suggest Pyongyang had either developed a hydrogen bomb or was getting close.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Sunday that the North Korea may now possess nuclear weapons that can be used in an actual war.

The nuclear test “was 160 kilotons, 10 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima” in 1945, Onodera said. “I can’t help but think the country possesses nuclear weapons.”

On whether to recognize North Korea as a nuclear state, Onodera said that would be “up to the international community to judge.”

But “apart from the issue of recognizing whether or not the country is a nuclear state, it has repeatedly conducted nuclear tests and has the capabilities to do so,” he said.

In a television program earlier the same day, Onodera said he expects the next provocative action by North Korea to be a test launch of an ICBM, adding that it is possible a missile may again be launched over Japan in a manner akin to last month’s firing of an intermediate-range missile over Hokkaido.

“The capability that North Korea wants to acquire is an ICBM,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of U.S. military action against the North, the defense chief hinted that Japan is requesting Washington to take a measured response.

“It is certain that South Korea will be the one that suffers major damage, and Japan will be placed in a similar situation,” Onodera said. “In talks between Japan and the United States, we are always conveying our thinking.”

Onodera also touched on the possibility of Maritime Self-Defense Force escort ships protecting a U.S. Aegis-equipped vessel that is monitoring North Korean ballistic missiles, saying that the role of joint activities by the two countries would deepen under security-related legislation that took effect last year.