Over 20 nations have curbed the diplomatic or business operations of the North Korean government following a more-than-yearlong effort by the State Department, an indication of the kind of behind-the-scenes pressure the US
is using to tackle an emerging nuclear standoff.
officials have asked countries to shut down businesses owned by the North Korean government, remove North Korean vessels from ship registries, end flights by the country’s national air carrier and expel its ambassadors. At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit earlier this year, US
diplomats made sure North Korea
couldn’t secure any bilateral meetings.
Mexico, Peru, Spain
all expelled their North Korean ambassadors after the US
warned that Pyongyang
was using its embassies to ship contraband and possibly weapons components in diplomatic pouches and earn currency for the regime. Italy
became the latest country to do so on Oct. 1.
and Qatar, among other countries, have agreed to reduce the presence of North Korean guest workers, according to US
officials and people familiar with the matter.
The campaign abroad is intensifying as the Trump
administration adopts stricter sanctions at home, and the United Nations pursues enforcement of its tightest sanctions on Pyongyang
yet. The talks are also a contrast to the heated exchanges between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
and Mr Trump, who has issued a series of vague threats of possible military action, saying diplomacy has failed.
The latest threat came in a Twitter message Saturday from the president. “Sorry, but only one thing will work,” Mr Trump
wrote. On Thursday, he said a White House meeting with military leaders represented “the calm before the storm.” The White House refused to clarify either remark.
Asked on Sunday what the president meant in his Twitter message, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said on NBC that what Mr Trump
“is clearly telegraphing—and this should not be news to anybody—is that military options are on the table with North Korea.
They absolutely are.”
Sen Ron Johnson (R., Wis.), by contrast, said diplomacy was the only option for curtailing North Korea’s nuclear program. He said the US
should encourage China
to step up pressure on Pyongyang.
“There is no viable military option. It’d be horrific,”’ Mr Johnson, chairman of the Senate’s homeland security committee, said on CNN.
The previous weekend, Mr Trump
tweeted that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
was “wasting his time” by exploring the possibility of negotiations with North Korea.
Mr Tillerson days later held an unusual, unscheduled news conference to deny reports that he had considered resigning.
diplomats, pursuing a quieter campaign alongside UN
sanctions and talks with China, have been approaching nations as big as Germany
and as small as Fiji with highly specific requests, sometimes based on US
intelligence, to shut down North Korea’s foreign links.
For example, a US
official said, the State Department flagged a North Korean hostel operating in the centre of Berlin that they said was sending currency back to the Kim regime. In May, Germany
announced it was closing the hostel.
diplomats asked Fiji to inform the UN
that as many as 12 North Korean vessels were operating under the Fijian flag without permission, according to a State Department spokesman.
The idea, according to US
officials, is to show Mr Kim that, so long as he seeks missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, he will find no refuge from Washington’s pursuit.
policy makers, led by Mr Tillerson, have said they hope that Mr Kim eventually will conclude his program comes at too high a cost to his regime and his nation and enter disarmament talks.
The likelihood of success has become a matter of debate. The US
intelligence community has concluded that no amount of pressure would convince Mr Kim to disarm because the North Korean leader sees the nuclear and missile program as his regime’s ticket to survival, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said at a recent hearing.
“Tillerson’s working against—I applaud what he’s done, but he’s working against the unified view of our intelligence agencies, which say there’s no amount of pressure that can be put on them to stop,” Mr Corker said.
Susan Thornton, the State Department’s top diplomat overseeing the pressure campaign, said at the hearing that the department’s efforts were testing the intelligence community’s assessment and added China’s position was slowly shifting, viewing North Korea
as more of a liability than an asset. “I think Secretary Tillerson has made a lot of progress on that front,” she said.
Rep Ed Royce (R., Calif.), House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, has said that new pressure tactics need time to work, but that North Korea
eventually will lack the resources to run its missile program.
Sen Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, shared Sen. Corker’s skepticism at the recent hearing. “You’re all, in your own way, doing that which is strategically necessary in your own lane; and yet we have an objective that may not be achievable at all.”
officials believe Washington must pursue a pressure campaign, even if it ultimately fails, because it represents the best chance of a peaceful solution. The White House has said it backs State Department efforts to squeeze Pyongyang, while opposing negotiations.
The pressure campaign has become a cornerstone of Mr Tillerson’s policy on North Korea.
He often requests that his staff provide him with “specific asks” he can make on North Korea
when meeting with counterparts from around the world, according to US
officials. Mr Tillerson has made those requests in nearly all bilateral meetings in recent months and has received weekly updates on the results.
Mr Tillerson has elevated the campaign, which began in early 2016 after the Obama administration saw Mr Kim make a significant advance in his drive for an intercontinental nuclear weapon, according to current and former US
State Department officials then drew up a detailed spreadsheet that listed all of North Korea’s known political, economic and military interests around the world—diplomatic missions, cargo ships, guest worker contingents, military relationships and more, a former US
official said. The document functioned as a “to do” list of entities to target for closure.
diplomats began coordinating on roughly a weekly basis with South Korea and on a monthly basis with Japan, mapping out a strategy and comparing notes, according to the former official.
Initially, the US diplomats faced resistance. Some countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, expressed skepticism about the American requests and saw little need to curtail their links with Pyongyang, current and former US officials saibehaviour
as North Korea
exhibited increasingly flagrant behavior this year—assassinating Mr Kim’s half-brother in the Kuala Lumpur airport, firing its first intercontinental ballistic missiles and testing what many US
officials suspect was its first hydrogen bomb—countries that had previously resisted became more cooperative, the officials said.
Myanmar, which US
diplomats have been pushing to cut military-to-military ties with North Korea
and stop weapons deals with Pyongyang, has resisted the US
Kyaw Zeya, permanent secretary for Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the country had ordinary ties with North Korea
and no special military ties. Myanmar has responded to the US
entreaties by asking Washington for evidence of any military dealings, the permanent secretary said.
Similarly, Chile said it has declined to reclassify its wine as a luxury export or to cut diplomatic relations with North Korea, despite personal requests made by Vice President Mike Pence
on a recent trip to the country.