Japan urges continued pressure on North Korea

While the two Koreas are back on talking terms, Japan is keeping up its push for countries around the world to exert maximum pressure on the North.

"We have not seen any concrete commitment from North Korea to achieve denuclearisation," a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official told visiting journalists on Tuesday. "We will continue to put pressure on North Korea to change its policy," he added, reiterating Tokyo's call for the global community, including Asean, to ramp up pressure.

The bureaucrat, who asked not to be named, was outlining Japan's hardline approach on North Korea to visiting journalists from the 10 Asean countries. His remarks came on the same day Foreign Minister Taro Kono attended a meeting of 20 countries in Vancouver to discuss North Korea, joining the likes of United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha.

On Jan 9, officials from the two Koreas met formally for the first time in two years. Both sides agreed to revive military talks, in what is being seen as a step forward in easing tensions.

At the Vancouver meeting, however, Mr Kono urged caution, saying that any view that Pyongyang should be rewarded for going back to dialogue, with the lifting of sanctions or provision of assistance, was "just too naive". He said: "What we should have in mind is that North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and missile programmes even as we speak and we should not be naive about their intent, nor should we be blinded by North Korea's charm offensive."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had, in his New Year's address, offered the South an olive branch. But he also trumpeted his "nuclear button" and claimed that his country had completed its nuclear and ballistic missile programme. Last year, tensions heightened as the North flew two ballistic missiles over Hokkaido and conducted its sixth nuclear test with an explosive force almost 10 times more destructive than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima in World War II.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry official told Asean reporters in Tokyo that this was "the last time, the last opportunity" to push for a denuclearised Korean peninsula, as he cautioned that North Korea may otherwise "go even further".

"We need to put all options on the table to force North Korea to dispose of its nuclear and missile programmes," the official said. It is crucial for all countries to seal all loopholes in their strict enforcement of United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang so as to dry up its foreign revenue sources.

Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun on Tuesday reported a "cat-and-mouse game" in which Pyongyang skirts sanctions by "using ships registered in other nations to swop cargo on the high seas and smuggle much-needed petroleum to the impoverished nation". These countries include the African nations of Tanzania and Togo, and the Pacific island nation of Palau.

The official also called on China to take more proactive steps, even as he said Japan welcomes the concrete actions by Beijing thus far to impose sanctions, such as its ban on the import of coal from North Korea and limiting exports of refined oil products to the country. China accounts for 90 per cent of North Korea's foreign trade, he noted, adding that there is room for the Asian power to do even more beyond imposing UN sanctions.

As for Asean, the official said the 10-member bloc has to stay vigilant against attempts by North Korea to evade sanctions, considering the bloc's proximity to North-east Asia. There is room, too, for the bloc to tighten the noose further, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2018, with the headline 'Japan urges continued pressure on North Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe