The United States battled to maintain international solidarity in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threat on Thursday as Russia warned that sanctions have failed and China side-stepped talk of an oil embargo.
The stakes could scarcely be higher in the stand-off, after the United States warned that Kim Jong Un’s regime would be “utterly destroyed” if its pursuit of a long-range nuclear missile arsenal provokes a military response.
But U.S.-led efforts to isolate Kim, cripple his economy and force him to negotiate his own disarmament failed to prevent this week’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching U.S. cities.
Washington urged tough action at an emergency meeting of the Security Council and President Donald Trump began Thursday by complaining that North Korea’s neighbor China has failed to convince Kim to back down.
“The Chinese Envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man,” Trump said, in a tweet, using his favorite nickname for the North Korean dictator. “Hard to believe his people, and the military, put up with living in such horrible conditions.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who met Thursday with Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, was more diplomatic in his response to China — but did press for tougher action to cut off the North’s fuel supplies.
“I think the Chinese are doing a lot. We do think they could do more with the oil and we’re really asking them to please restrain more of the oil, not cut it off completely,” he said.
“That was the most effective tool the last time the North Koreans came to the table, cutting the oil off.”
Usefulness of sanctions ‘exhausted’?
Tillerson’s call came after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, issued a stark warning to the U.N. Security Council.
“The dictator of North Korea made a choice yesterday that brings the world closer to war, not farther from it,” she said. “If war comes, make no mistake: The North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.”
But her call for nations to “cut off all ties with North Korea” was rejected by Moscow, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying Russia saw the proposal “negatively.”
“We have repeatedly stated that the pressure of sanctions has been exhausted,” Lavrov told reporters in Minsk, Belarus.
Tuesday’s launch ended a two-month lull in missile tests that had raised hopes for the opening of diplomatic talks. The North said the weapon could land anywhere in the continental United States, and France said Europe was also in striking distance.
Kim said the test of the Hwasong-15 weapons system had helped his country achieve the goal of becoming a full nuclear power, sparking global condemnation.
Haley said Trump had called Chinese President Xi Jinping and urged him to “cut off the oil from North Korea” — a move that would deal a crippling blow to Pyongyang’s economy.
“That would be a pivotal step in the world’s effort to stop this international pariah,” she said, warning that if Beijing does not act, “we can take the oil situation into our own hands.”
The United States earlier pressed for a full oil embargo on North Korea after it tested its most powerful nuclear bomb to date in September, but dropped that demand in negotiations on a sanctions resolution with China.
‘Situation will be handled’
The Security Council met Wednesday at the request of the United States, Japan and South Korea to consider next steps after three rounds of sanctions adopted in the past year failed to push North Korea to change course. Trump, who has traded barbs with Kim for months, asked Xi to use “all available levers” to press the hermit state.
“This situation will be handled!” Trump tweeted.
But China’s foreign ministry sidestepped questions about the U.S. call for an oil embargo, with spokesman Geng Shuang telling reporters that Beijing upholds U.N. resolutions and backs the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Beijing has backed a slew of sanctions that include bans on imports of North Korean coal, iron ore and seafood. The U.N. also barred the hiring of North Korean guest workers and capped exports of refined petroleum products.
But China has refused to turn off its pipeline shipping crude to North Korea.
Beijing fears that taking tougher actions could cause the regime to collapse, triggering a refugee crisis across its border with the North and eliminating a strategic buffer separating China from the U.S. military in South Korea.
China has proposed that the North stop missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a freeze of U.S. military exercises — a suggestion Washington has repeatedly rejected. There are also concerns in Seoul, which is within range of Pyongyang’s artillery, that Trump might be considering military action against the North that could trigger a full-scale war.
Last week, Trump announced new U.S. unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang and returned it to a U.S. list of state sponsors of terror. He has said additional sanctions are planned.
Canada said it would host a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the North Korean threat.