MANILA (AFP) – The United States and China piled pressure on North Korea yesterday to abandon its nuclear missile programme after the UN Security Council approved tough sanctions which could cost Pyongyang $1 billion a year.
One day after Council members voted unanimously for a partial ban on exports aimed at slashing Pyongyang’s foreign revenue by a third, top diplomats from the key powers in the dispute met in Manila.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was encouraged by the vote, but officials warned that Washington would closely watch China – North Korea’s biggest trade partner – to ensure sanctions are enforced.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his North Korean counterpart Ri Hong-yo before a major regional security forum being hosted by the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
He urged the North to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
“It will help the DPRK to make the right and smart decision,” Mr Wang told reporters, speaking through a translator, after talks with Mr Ri – referring to the sanctions and to Mr Ri’s presence in Manila. However, Mr Wang also emphasised that negotiations were the only way to solve the issue.
Pyongyang’s top envoy has so far avoided the media in Manila. But in a characteristically fiery editorial before the latest sanctions were approved, the North’s ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun warned against US aggression.
“The day the US dares tease our nation with a nuclear rod and sanctions, the mainland US will be catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire,” it said.
Mr Tillerson also met Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and was to see Mr Wang last night, seeking to intensify Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic isolation and reduce the risk of renewed conflict.
“It was a good outcome,” Mr Tillerson said of the UN vote, before a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha.
Senior US envoy Susan Thornton said Washington was “still going to be watchful” on the implementation of sanctions, cautioning that previous votes had been followed by China “slipping back”. But she added China’s support for the UN resolution “shows that they realise that this is a huge problem that they need to take on”.
The urgency of the situation was underlined by President Donald Trump’s national security adviser HR McMaster, who told MSNBC news that the US leader was reviewing plans for a “preventive war”.
“He said he’s not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States,” Mr McMaster said. “It’s intolerable from the president’s perspective. So of course, we have to provide all options to do that. And that includes a military option.”
Saturday’s UN resolution banned exports of coal, iron and iron ore, lead and lead ore as well as fish and seafood by the cash-starved state.
If fully implemented it would strip North Korea of a third of its export earnings – estimated to total $3 billion per year despite successive rounds of sanctions since the North’s first nuclear test in 2006.
The resolution also prevents North Korea from increasing the number of workers it sends abroad. Their earnings are another source of foreign currency for Mr Kim’s regime.
It prohibits all new joint ventures with North Korea, bans new investment in current joint companies and adds nine North Korean officials and four entities including the North’s main foreign exchange bank to the UN sanctions blacklist.
Mr Trump hailed the vote – saying in a tweet that the sanctions will have “very big financial impact!” – and thanked Russia and China for backing a measure that either could have halted with their UN veto.
But the measure does not provide for cuts to oil deliveries, which would have dealt a serious blow to the North’s economy.
China accounts for 90 percent of trade with North Korea, and Beijing’s attitude to its neighbour will be crucial to the success or failure of the new sanctions regime.
Speaking to reporters after the council vote, Washington’s ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said “what’s next is completely up to North Korea”.