NEW YORK/SEOUL/UNITED NATIONS – The U.S. has knocked back a call to ease sanctions on North Korea despite threats of further provocations, with President Donald Trump saying he would “take care of” any threats the regime had in the works.
Washington was responding to a U.N. Security Council proposal by China and Russia to lessen the economic embargo on North Korea. The countries — Cold War allies of North Korea who have recently repaired their ties with leader Kim Jong Un — said the changes were warranted because the regime had complied with United Nations resolutions and needed “humanitarian and livelihood” relief, according to a draft provided by diplomats who asked not to be named.
The U.S. rejected the proposal, saying it was premature to ease sanctions while North Korea advances prohibited weapons systems and threatens escalation, according to a State Department official who asked not be named. The U.S. remained committed to achieving North Korea’s “complete denuclearization” through negotiations, the official said.
The draft called for a ban to be lifted on North Koreans working abroad and the termination of a 2017 requirement for all such workers to be repatriated by next week. The draft also sought to exempt inter-Korean rail and road cooperation projects from U.N. sanctions.
It was not immediately clear when or if the draft resolution could be put to a vote in the 15-member Security Council. A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia or China to pass.
“We’re not rushing things,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told Reuters, adding that negotiations with council members would begin Tuesday. He said the sanctions they had proposed lifting were “not directly related to the North Korea nuclear program” and that “this is a humanitarian issue.”
The draft welcomes “the continuation of the dialogue between the United States and the DPRK at all levels, aimed at establishing new U.S.-DPRK relations, building mutual confidence and joining efforts to build a lasting and stable peace on the Korean Peninsula in a staged and synchronized manner.” DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
It also calls for the so-called six-party talks between North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and Japan to be resumed, or for the launch of “multilateral consultations in any other similar format, with the goal of facilitating a peaceful and comprehensive solution through dialogue.”
Russia and China have long said the Security Council should reward Pyongyang after Kim pledged in 2018 to work toward denuclearization.
At a council meeting on North Korea last week, called by the United States, China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said sanctions should be adjusted to “head off a dramatic reversal” of the situation.
The draft resolution circulated to the Security Council by Russia and China said the sanctions would be terminated “with the intent of enhancing the livelihood of the civilian population.”
The industries on which Russia and China have proposed lifting controls have earned North Korea hundreds of millions of dollars. The sanctions and were put in place in 2016 and 2017 to try and cut off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
The U.S., the U.K. and France have insisted that no U.N. sanctions should be lifted until North Korea gives up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Pyongyang has been subject to U.N. sanctions because of those programs since 2006.
“On North Korea, as in the past, it’s very important that the council maintains unity,” German U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said on Monday.
The Chinese-Russian resolution, which may prompt further Security Council discussions Tuesday, came after Trump’s top envoy to North Korea countered Kim’s threat of a “Christmas” provocation by urging renewed talks and to usher in a “season of peace.” Trump later warned the regime against any weapons tests or other actions in the coming days.
“We’re watching it,,” Trump told reporters Monday at the White House. “We’ll see. I’d be disappointed if something would be in the works. And if it is, we’ll take care of it.”
Tensions have slowly risen on the Korean Peninsula as time runs out on Kim’s threat to take a “new path” if Trump doesn’t make him a better offer in nuclear talks.
North Korea has fired off a record number of short-range ballistic missile in recent months, and has threatened to withdraw Kim’s 2-year-old freeze on tests of nuclear weapons and the longer-range missiles needed to carry them to the U.S. mainland.
Last week, Kelly Craft, the United States’ ambassador to U.N., warned of “deeply troubling indications” that North Korea was poised for a major provocation such as launching “space vehicles using long-range ballistic missile technology” or even test-launching intercontinental ballistic missiles “which are designed to attack the continental United States.”
On Saturday, North Korea said it had conducted a second “crucial test” to boost its nuclear-deterrent capabilities. Such tests have put further pressure on the U.S. to try to break the deadlock in negotiations between the two countries after working-level talks collapsed in Stockholm in October.
The two sides have reached no agreements since committing to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” during an unprecedented face-to-face meeting between Trump and Kim in June 2018. The U.S. has so far refused to lift sanctions without a stronger pledge from North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapon capabilities.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that North Korea would likely carry out unspecified tests if they “don’t feel satisfied,” amid fears the two countries could return to the collision course they had been on before launching diplomatic efforts.
Tension has been rising in recent weeks as Pyongyang has conducted a series of weapons tests and waged a war of words with Trump.
“We have seen talk of tests. I think that they will be likely if they don’t feel satisfied,” Esper told reporters traveling with him from Europe back to Washington.
He did not provide details on what type of tests may be likely but added that he was hopeful about diplomatic efforts.
Experts say North Korea could restart intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing suspended since 2017 — a move that would be seen as highly provocative in Washington.
“I’ve been watching the Korean Peninsula for maybe a quarter of a century now,” Esper said. “So I’m familiar with their tactics, with their bluster and I think we need to get serious and sit down and have discussions about a political agreement that denuclearizes the Peninsula.”
The United States’ North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, urged Kim to return to talks during a visit to Seoul, which was viewed as the administration’s last chance to dial back tensions. Biegun also met with Moon and Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chol, and was expected to head to Tokyo later in the week.
“It is time for us to do our jobs. Let’s get this done,” Biegun said in a direct message to North Korea. “We are here, and you know how to reach us.”