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US rejects relief for North Korea as Trump warns against tests

Bloomberg New York | Updated on December 18, 2019 Published on December 18, 2019

File Photo of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.   -  Reuters

The US moved to head off a call by China and Russia 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.

A new UN Security Council proposal by China and Russia to lessen the economic embargo on North Korea is getting pushback in Washington. The proposal by North Korea’s historic allies said the changes were warranted because Kim Jong Un’s 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.

“We all know that the situation in the Korean Peninsula is really at a critical stage,” China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun told reporters on Tuesday, after the resolution was circulated to Security Council members. “And while we all expect progress forward, we have to really do whatever we can to prevent the situation from rolling back and to prevent a more deteriorated situation.”

Zhang’s comments underscored a fraying consensus on the council, which had thus far remained united behind Trump’s maximum pressure campaign on North Korea. The US on Monday 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 US envoy to North Korea talks, Stephen Biegun, will be travelling to Beijing Dec. 19-20 to meet with Chinese officials and “discuss the need to maintain international unity on North Korea,” the State Department announced on Tuesday. Despite the Chinese and Russian initiative, the State Department official said the administration remains committed to achieving North Korea’s “complete denuclearisation” through negotiations.

The Chinese-Russian resolution came after Biegun 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.”

Rising tensions

Tensions have slowly risen on the Korean Peninsula as time runs out on Kim’s threat to take a “new path” if Trump does not 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 two-year-old freeze on tests of nuclear weapons and longer-range rockets needed to deliver them to the US mainland.

Last week, the US ambassador to UN, Kelly Craft, 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 an 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 US to try to break the deadlock in negotiations between the two countries after working-level talks collapsed in October in Stockholm.

General Charles Brown, the commander of US Pacific air forces, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that his personnel are monitoring North Korean territory closely for any advance sign of preparations for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Kim’s regime has not conducted a flight test of such a missile since late 2017.

“There’s a pattern that you see with the North Koreans,” Brown said, where “the rhetoric precedes activity, which precedes a launch.” He added that it is “tough to say”’ whether North Korea’s activity so far indicates it may launch a missile from a road-mobile or fixed site. “What I would expect is some type of long-range ballistic missile would be the ‘gift’ Kim has threatened, Brown said.

The two sides have reached no agreements since committing to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” during an unprecedented face to face-to-face meeting between Trump and Kim in June 2018. The US has so far refused to lift sanctions without a stronger pledge from North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapon capabilities.

The Chinese-Russian resolution included exemptions for inter-Korean rail-and-road projects long sought by Seoul, potentially reviving a source of tension between Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The proposal would allow sales of machinery and vehicles for infrastructure construction, as well as household items such as air conditioners, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said in a statement that the resolution was a Security Council matter, although the government would follow developments closely. The US’s envoy, 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.”

Published on December 18, 2019
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