US pushes for total trade embargo

October 19, 2006

On October 14, five days after North Korea announced that it had carried out its first nuclear weapons test, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution imposing a ban on trade with North Korea in "luxury" goods, some conventional armaments, and materials "related" to its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

After the resolution was passed, Pak Gil Yon, North Korea's UN ambassador accused the council's members of a "gangster-like" action that neglects the nuclear threat posed to his country by the US.

Western analysts estimate that North Korea has enough plutonium to make up to 10 small nuclear bombs. The US, which since 1950 has been officially at war with North Korea (a ceasefire was agreed to in 1953), has some 10,000 nuclear weapons, 5735 of which are classified as "operational".

While the US officially claims to have withdrawn all of its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, it continues to station nuclear-armed warships in the surrounding waters.

Among them are Trident-class submarines armed with nuclear missiles that provide "a unique very short notice (12-13 minutes) strike capability against time-critical targets in North Korea", according to the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project. Washington also has 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea.

As part of his regime's preparations for invading Iraq in March 2003, US President George Bush branded North Korea, Iraq and Iran "an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world" with "weapons of mass destruction" in his January 2002 State of Union address.

North Korea withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, announcing it was going to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods to make a "workable nuclear deterrent".

Associated Press reported on October 15 that the "US-sponsored resolution demands North Korea eliminate nuclear weapons but expressly rules out military action against the country, on the demand of the Russians and Chinese ... To meet Russian and Chinese concerns, the Americans eliminated a complete ban on the sale of conventional weapons. Instead, the resolution limits the embargo to major hardware such as tanks, warships, combat aircraft and missiles."

AP also reported that despite the unanimous vote for the resolution, "sharp divisions" exist between the US and North Korea's two largest trading partners (China and South Korea) over how to enforce the UN-ordered sanctions.

Washington is seeking to use the limited trade sanctions formally imposed on North Korea by UN Resolution 1718 to pressure other countries to impose a total trade embargo. This was indicated by the announcements by Japan and Australia, two key US allies in the Asia-Pacific region, that they would ban all ships from North Korea from entering their ports. Japan also announced a total ban on its already limited trade relations with North Korea.

On October 15, John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, told NBC's Meet the Press program that Washington intended to "ratchet up the pressure" to "make it clear that [North Korea's] international isolation is only going to increase".

Bolton said that if China cut off its crucial food and energy supplies to North Korea, it "would be powerfully persuasive in Pyongyang". He added: "I think that China has a heavy responsibility here."

Last year, China accounted for nearly 39% North Korea's imports and exports, followed by South Korea, which had a 26% share.

However, both Beijing and Seoul have indicated that they do not believe the implementation of Resolution 1718 should affect their existing trade and business dealings with North Korea.

On October 15, South Korean officials said Seoul would continue to pursue its economic projects within North Korea, including an industrial zone on the northern side of the border where South Korean companies operate factories that are expected to employ 100,000 North Korean workers by next year and 750,000 by 2012. These workers are paid an average of US$57 per month — less than 5% of what their South Korean counterparts earn.

Another difference with Washington is over the resolution's call on countries to inspect cargo to and from North Korea to prevent trafficking in certain heavy weapons, nuclear technology and ballistic missiles.

The October 15 New York Tomes reported that "like China, South Korea fears that inspecting North Korean ships by force could lead to a military confrontation. As a result, despite pressure from Washington, Seoul has not joined the three-year-old American-led Proliferation Security Initiative, a program grouping nations that have agreed to intercept illicit weapons in their waters or air space."

Yoon Tae Young, a spokesperson for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, told journalists on October 16 that Seoul "will faithfully honour our obligations under the UN resolution", but this should be done in a way that "does not escalate security concerns or economic instability".

The NYT reported that Western "analysts said that with the reluctance of China and South Korea to crack down on Pyongyang, as well as Russia's initial unwillingness to take a hard line against North Korea, it was unclear how effective the sanctions would be".

"Limited sanctions and cooperation will continue, so we're basically in the same boat as before", David Kang, a US expert on Korea, told the NYT.

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