US battles for global push on North Korea amid Russia, China doubts

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The United States is battling to maintain international solidarity in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threat after 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 US 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 US-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 US cities.

Washington urged tough action at an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Thursday and US President Donald Trump complained 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 term of abuse for the North Korean dictator.

“Hard to believe his people, and the military, put up with living in such horrible conditions,” he said.

Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later clarified that the US is not seeking regime change in North Korea, but is focused on the “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula.

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said Washington would pursue “unrelenting” efforts on the diplomatic front, including before the UN Security Council, to bring Pyongyang to heel.

“Our diplomats will speak from a position of strength because we do have military options,” he said.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who met on Thursday with Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, was more cautious in his response to China — but did press for tougher action to cut of 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 — a move that would nevertheless deal a crippling blow to Pyongyang’s economy.

Tillerson’s call came after the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley issued a stark warning to the UN 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,” he told reporters in Minsk.

Tuesday’s launch ended a two-month lull in missile tests that had raised hopes for the opening of diplomatic talks. 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.

The North said the weapon could land anywhere in the continental United States, and France said Europe was also in the striking distance.

However, South Korea’s unification ministry cast doubt on Friday on the North’s claim it had mastered the technology to ensure a missile survives re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“The government does not think that North Korea’s latest test demonstrated a full capability for an ICBM, including the re-entry technology and a precision guidance system,” spokeswoman Lee Eugene told journalists.

The Security Council met on Wednesday at the request of the US, Japan and South Korea to consider next steps after three rounds of sanctions adopted in the past year failed to change North Korea’s course.

Trump — who has traded barbs with Kim for months — asked Xi to use “all available levers” to press the hermit state. But China’s foreign ministry sidestepped questions about the US call for an oil embargo, with spokesman Geng Shuang telling reporters that Beijing upholds UN resolutions and backs the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

The state-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial on Friday that China “will not impose any additional unilateral punishments on North Korea”, adding that an oil embargo “might even trigger a humanitarian crisis”.

Beijing has backed a slew of sanctions that include bans on imports of North Korean coal, iron ore and seafood. The UN also barred the hiring of North Korean guest workers and capped exports of refined petroleum products.

But 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 US military in South Korea.

China has proposed that the North stop missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a freeze of US 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.