US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, yesterday, called for nations to step up the US-led “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea by interdicting ships conducting illicit trade with the pariah nation as well as for new punitive measures to be implemented every time Pyongyang tests new weapons.
He immediately got tough backing from his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono in public opening remarks; however, South Korea’s Kang Kyung-Wha sounded a more cautious note and told the 20 senior envoys sanctions pressure is already making progress.
The uncompromising message delivered to the 20 nations gathering who were on America’s side during the Korean War came despite the recent diplomatic opening between the rival Koreas after a year of escalating tension.
“We must increase the costs of the regime’s behavior to the point that North Korea must come to the table for credible negotiations,” Tillerson said in his opening remarks at the meeting co-hosted with Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland at the Canada’s western coast city of Vancouver.
The meeting convened days after a mistaken missile alert caused panic on Hawaii, a stark reminder of the fears of conflict with the North.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said its talks with North Korea, leading to its participation in next month’s Olympics being hosted by the South, are a “significant first step toward restoring inter-Korean relations.”
But she conceded that despite the overtures, North Korea has yet to show any intention to fulfill its obligations on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono was blunter. He said the North “wants to buy some time to continue their nuclear and missile programs.”
The United States however urged for an escalation in pressure on North Korea over its nuclear missile program, despite a more cautious tone from key US ally South Korea.
Tillerson said: “First, we all must insist a full enforcement of UN Security Council sanctions as this is the letter of the law. We especially urge Russia and China in this matter”, though, the Vancouver meeting is strongly opposed by China and Russia which fought on the communist side in the Korean War.
“Second, we all must work together to improve maritime interdiction operations. We must put an end to illicit ship-to-ship transfers that undermine UN sanctions.
“And, third, there must be new consequences for the regime whenever new aggression occurs.”
The tough US stance comes as some have welcomed North Korea’s decision to meet with Seoul’s representatives and to send a delegation to the South’s upcoming Winter Olympics as a sign that tensions may be lowered.
But Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono urged the allies not to let their guard down as they seek to force Pyongyang to agree to negotiate its own nuclear disarmament.
Without mentioning South Korea by name, Kono warned that Kim Jong-Un’s regime “must be intending to drive a wedge between those tough countries and those that are not so tough.”
“I am aware that some people argue that because North Korea is engaging in inter-Korean dialogue we should reward them by lifting up sanctions or by providing some sort of assistance,” he said.
“Frankly, I think this view is just too naive. I believe that North Korea wants to buy some time to continue their nuclear missile programs,” he said.
For her part, Kang welcomed the international solidarity behind the sanctions regime, but her opening remarks in Tuesday’s session carried a more optimistic message than that of her Japanese neighbor.
“I believe that the two tools, tough sanctions and pressure on the one hand and the offer of a different brighter future on the other, have worked hand in hand,” she said.
“Indeed the concerted efforts of the international community have begun to bear fruit,” she explained.
“We should take note that the North has come back to inter-Korean dialogue for its participation in the Winter Games, as evidence and observations accumulate to show that sanctions and pressure are beginning to take effect.”
Tillerson called for China and Russia to fully implement the sanctions. He reiterated US opposition to their idea of a “freeze-for-freeze,” whereby the US-South Korea military exercises would halt in exchange for suspension of the North’s nuclear programs.
Although Tillerson said the meeting sends North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a unified message that a nuclear-armed North is unacceptable, it risks alienating Beijing and Moscow who are Pyongyang’s main trading and diplomatic partners, but have nevertheless supported UN Security Council resolutions to restrict revenue for North Korean nuclear and missile development.
It appears the Vancouver meeting is primarily for symbolic show that is unlikely to break much new ground as the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday called it “unacceptable” and “destructive”; while the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters a meeting that “doesn’t include important parties to the Korean peninsula nuclear issue” cannot help resolve it.
On its part, the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters that in spite of the inter-Korean talks, “the North Korean regime is still going down the path of the acquisition of an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) tipped with a nuclear device that could have incalculable geostrategic consequences.”
The meeting is being attended by foreign ministers and senior diplomats of nations that sent troops or humanitarian aid to the UN Command that supported South Korea in the fight against the communist North and its allies during the 1950-53 Korean War. It’s a diverse gathering of mostly European and Asian nations, as well as Australia, New Zealand and Columbia. Officials are discussing sanctions, preventing the spread of weapons by North Korea, and diplomacy.
Tillerson said all nations must work together to improve maritime interdiction operations and stop illicit ship-to-ship transfers that violate UN sanctions. The US has previously highlighted efforts by North Korea to circumvent restrictions on supplies of oil and petroleum products, most of which are supplied by China.
The latest UN Security Council resolution, adopted in December, in response to an intercontinental ballistic missile test, calls on member states to impound vessels in their ports if there are reasonable grounds to suspect illicit trade with North Korea. It authorizes interdictions in a member state’s territorial waters.
Tillerson further highlighted how North Korean missile tests pose a threat to civilian air traffic in the busy skies above East Asia.
“North Korea’s willingness to launch missiles at any time presents a threat to people of all nationalities in the region’s airspace each day,” he said.
Despite Washington’s tough stance and determination to keep up the pressure on North Korea, President Donald Trump has signaled openness to talks with North under the right circumstances.
This is coming after months of insults and blood-curdling threats both men traded on Twitter, Trump has suggested in an interview last week that the two leaders could have a positive relationship.
The White House said Trump spoke Monday with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and they were hopeful that the inter-Korean talks “might prompt a change in North Korea’s destructive behavior.”
But Kim, widely viewed as seeking to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea, shows no sign of making concessions toward Washington as his totalitarian government comes close to perfecting a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the United States.