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North Korea tests missile as US’s Rex Tillerson calls for sanctions

LiveMint logoLiveMint 29-04-2017 Nick Wadhams

New York: North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile just hours after US secretary of state Rex Tillerson mounted an effort at the United Nations to rally pressure against Kim Jong Un’s regime.

The missile was fired at 5:30am on Saturday local time from northeast of Pyongyang and appears to have failed, according to a text message from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The US Pacific Command said it didn’t leave North Korean territory and posed no threat to North America. It was likely a medium-range KN-17 ballistic missile and broke up minutes after launch, the Associated Press reported, citing an unidentified US official.

In a tweet shortly after the launch, President Donald Trump referenced a growing divergence between North Korea and its main ally China: “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!” Trump has praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s actions on North Korea since the two leaders met in Florida earlier this month.

Trump has stepped up pressure on North Korea to prevent it from obtaining the capability to hit North America with a nuclear weapon. He has threatened to act unilaterally if China fails to do more to curb its neighbour’s activities.

Kim’s regime has test-fired ballistic missiles six times this year, including a failed test earlier this month following a high-profile military parade through Pyongyang. He’s launched dozens of projectiles and conducted three nuclear tests since coming to power after his father’s death in 2011, and claimed in January to be almost ready to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile that would threaten the continental US.

Tillerson told Fox News earlier this week that China had warned Kim’s regime it would impose further sanctions if it conducted a sixth nuclear test. China banned coal imports from North Korea this year and the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper affiliated with Communist Party, warned earlier this month that another nuclear test might prompt oil curbs.

“The Security Council is mobilized,” Francois Delattre, France’s ambassador to the UN, said in reaction to news of the North Korean missile launch hours after the Security Council met to discuss the country. “The Security Council has to assume its responsibilities to be very firm in terms of the implementation of existing sanctions, in terms of adopting new sanctions if necessary, and tightening the regime of sanctions.”

At the UN on Friday, Tillerson called on other nations to cut diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea. He spelled out a renewed US effort to compel the country’s regime to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs after decades of defiance.

Speaking before the United Nations Security Council for the first time as the top US diplomat, Tillerson proposed three ways to pressure North Korea: UN member states should “fully implement” existing sanctions against North Korea, downgrade or suspend diplomatic ties with the country and increase its financial isolation with new and tighter sanctions.

“North Korea exploits its diplomatic privileges to fund its illicit nuclear and missile technology programs, and constraining its diplomatic activity will cut off the flow of needed resources,” Tillerson said Friday. Normal ties with the country “are simply not acceptable,” he added, urging economic sanctions against nations that do business with North Korea.

The Security Council meeting capped a flurry of US activity this week aimed at injecting urgency into resolving the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which are banned under UN resolutions. Trump has said he’s fed up with decades of failure by US presidents from both parties to stop the program. He’s called on China to rein in its neighbour and sent an aircraft carrier battle group and nuclear submarine to the region.

Tillerson told the Security Council that all of its members must share responsibility, saying those that don’t enforce existing sanctions “fully discredit this body.” He demanded countries suspend North Korean imports, particularly coal, and stop accepting North Korean guest workers.

Those were references to China, which accounts for the vast majority of trade with North Korea, and Russia, which allows North Korean workers in cities and towns near its border with the country in the Far East.

The response from some other nations suggested the US still has a long way to go to persuade them. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi again offered his country’s proposal that the US suspend military drills with South Korea in exchange for the North suspending its nuclear and missile programs. The US rejects that idea.

Wang also delivered a pointed rebuke to Trump, who said in an interview with Reuters Thursday that a “major conflict” with North Korea was possible if diplomatic solutions fail.

China “strongly urges all parties to remain calm, exercise restraint and avoid provocative rhetoric or actions that will lead to miscalculation,” Wang said. He added that the key to solving the North Korea nuclear problem “does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side.”

The exchanges were more cordial at the start of a one-on-one meeting later in the day between Tillerson and Wang.

Xi-Trump ties

“I appreciate the constructive way that China has engaged with the United States to address the challenges on the Korean Peninsula that are common to both of us,” Tillerson said at the opening of the meeting. He added that Trump and Xi “have developed a very good understanding of one another and a level of trust, which allows them to communicate openly and that is translated to all of us.”

During the Security Council session, Tillerson said that the US goal isn’t to overthrow Kim’s regime but ruled out talks unless the North Korean leader takes “concrete steps to reduce the threat that illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies.” As the meeting concluded, Tillerson reiterated that the US wouldn’t agree to talks unless North Korea abides by existing Security Council resolutions.

“The takeaway from today’s Security Council ministerial meeting is that Secretary Tillerson is trying to take sanctions that exist on paper and turn them in into steel bars that block North Korea from proliferating,” Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who’s now a diplomat in residence at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said in an interview. “What I interpret his message to be is a consciousness-raising effort and a spine-stiffening effort.” Bloomberg

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