AFP/United Nations, United States
The United States sounded a global call to confront the North Korean nuclear threat yesterday, exhorting Beijing to use its “unique” leverage to rein in Pyongyang and avert “catastrophic consequences”.
Addressing the UN Security Council after Donald Trump warned of the risk of a “major conflict”, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for a campaign of pressure to force Pyongyang to change course and put a halt to its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
“Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences,” Tillerson told the Council.
“The threat of a North Korean nuclear attack on Seoul or Tokyo is real, and it is likely only a matter of time before North Korea develops the capability to strike the US mainland,” he said.
Tillerson told the Council there was “no reason” to think North Korea would change course under the current multilateral sanctions regime, warning: “The time has come for all of us to put new pressure on North Korea to abandon its dangerous path.”
“I urge this council to act before North Korea does,” he said.
Washington has repeatedly called for tougher UN sanctions, but wants China to take the diplomatic lead by using its leverage over Pyongyang — which Beijing has been reluctant to do for fear of destabilising North Korea.
At the council meeting, China pushed back, saying it was not realistic to expect one country to be responsible for solving the conflict.
“China is not a focal point of the problem on the peninsula and the key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.
North Korea is seeking to develop a long-range missile capable of hitting the US mainland with a nuclear warhead, and has so far staged five atomic tests, two of them last year.
The Security Council meeting follows weeks of warnings from the US administration that it is running out of patience.
“All options for responding to future provocation must remain on the table,” Tillerson said.
“Diplomatic and financial levers of power will be backed up by willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action, if necessary.”
Russia and China made clear that a military response to the threat from Pyongyang would be disastrous and appealed for a return to talks and de-escalation.
China’s Wang warned “the use of force does not solve differences and will only lead to bigger disasters”.
North Korea “is conducting itself in an inappropriate way”, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told the council.
“At the same time, options of using force are completely unacceptable and could lead to catastrophic consequences.”
Tillerson called on all countries to downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea and impose targeted sanctions on entities and individuals supporting its missile and nuclear programme.
The US chief diplomat placed the onus squarely on China — which accounts for 90% of North Korea’s trade — saying it “has economic leverage over Pyongyang that is unique” and suggesting sanctions from Beijing would have a strong impact.
China and Russia argued that sanctions alone were not the answer.
The Chinese foreign minister pushed Beijing’s proposal for reviving talks based on a freeze of North Korea’s military programmes.
He said the long-standing proposal, which involves Pyongyang freezing military programmes in exchange for a halt to US-South Korean annual military drills, was “reasonable and practical”.
“Now is the time to seriously consider talks,” said Wang.
The United States has rejected the Chinese proposal and insists that North Korea first take steps to show that it is ready to abandon its military programmes.
At the end of the meeting, Tillerson again took the floor and bluntly re-asserted Washington’s stance.
“We will not negotiate our way back to the negotiating table. We will not reward their bad behavior with talks,” he said.
The United States, Russia and China took part in six-party talks on North Korea’s denuclearisation from 2003 to 2009, along with Japan, South Korea and Pyongyang.
The Security Council has imposed six sets of sanctions on North Korea — two adopted last year — to significantly ramp up pressure and deny Kim Jong-un’s regime the hard currency revenue needed for his military programmes.
But UN sanctions experts have repeatedly told the council the measures have had little impact on Pyongyang because they have been poorly implemented.
The meeting of the top UN body comes just days after South Korea received the first deliveries of equipment for a new missile defence system from the United States that China fiercely opposes.
Beijing “doesn’t hold the key to solving the North Korea issue,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
China has not escalated the conflicts surrounding North Korea, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a press conference in Beijing.
“The solution to this issue requires collective thinking and joint efforts,” Geng said.
China supports UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea’s nuclear programme and encourages solving the problem through “dialogue and communication”, he said.
In New York, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for all member countries to “fully implement” the United Nations’ commitments regarding on North Korea.
He accused Pyongyang of exploiting diplomatic privileges to make money for its “illicit” weapons programmes.
“In light of North Korea’s recent actions, normal relations with the DPRK are simply not acceptable,” Tillerson said.
He emphasized that the “new campaign” by the US is not seeking regime change, and held out the possibility of a resumption of US humanitarian aid to the North Korean people when the regime “begins to dismantle” the nuclear and missile technology programmes.
He called for the “international community” to halt flows of North Korea guest workers and ban the regime’s exports, particularly coal.
Earlier Friday, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) sought to ease escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, urging North Korea to comply with UN resolutions and international law in a bid.
The 10-member group called for Pyongyang and all parties involved to “exercise self-restraint in order to de-escalate the tension and refrain from actions that may aggravate the situation”.
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