Obama imposes new sanctions against North Korea

US President Barack Obama pausing to answer a question during a press conference following the Asean summit in Rancho Mirage, California on Feb 16, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

United States President Barack Obama has signed tough new sanctions following Pyongyang's latest nuclear test and rocket launch, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un repeated vows to launch more satellites that are viewed as missile tests in disguise.

The developments came as South Korea conducted a joint drill with the US yesterday to prepare for wartime contingency. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula continued to escalate ahead of an annual US- Korea joint military exercise, which will be the largest ever this year.

Mr Obama on Thursday signed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act into law, with almost unanimous support from the House of Representatives. The legislation will allow the administration to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang, targeting not just its nuclear programmes but also human rights violations, cybercrimes and other illegitimate activities.

Japan, a key ally of the US and South Korea, also approved additional sanctions against North Korea yesterday. These include bans on money transfers to North Korea except for humanitarian reasons and expanded travel bans on North Koreans.

Seoul welcomed the move by Washington, saying it will reinforce the united response by the international community.

China, however, gave a measured response and called for prudent action. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the North Korean issue is complex and cannot be resolved through pressure and sanctions.

He also urged the parties involved to exercise restraint and not do anything to increase tension.

Seoul had pinned hopes and exerted pressure on Beijing to step up and rein in its recalcitrant ally Pyongyang, but China has so far avoided doing more.

Inter-Korea ties have been frozen since Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan 6, followed by a long-range rocket launch earlier this month.

Pyongyang called it a satellite launch, but experts believe it was a cover for an intercontinental ballistic missile test.

Mr Kim, while attending a ceremony on Wednesday to reward scientists involved in the rocket launch, said the country is planning more satellite launches in the future. State media KCNA yesterday quoted him as saying it is North Korea's "strategic goal" to advance into space exploration.

But according to US sources, North Korea's latest satellite - believed to be an earth observation satellite - is tumbling in orbit and has not sent any data back to earth.

In a punitive move, South Korea downed the shutters on the joint Kaesong industrial complex with North Korea, prompting Pyongyang to expel all 124 South Korean firms involved in the project.

Analysts expect that tension between the two neighbours will continue to remain high until May, when North Korea holds its first party congress in 36 years.

Pyongyang is known to conduct missile tests every year ahead of the annual US-Korea military exercise. The US has been deploying more of its strategic assets to the region following North Korea's recent nuclear test, thereby prompting more show of power from the North.

"It's a vicious cycle," said Dr Choi Kang, vice-president for research at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

Small-scale military clashes might break out, but he believes both Koreas will be wise enough to pull back from the brink of war.

"Everyone wants to act decisively and resolutely but no one wants to escalate to a full-scale armed clash," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2016, with the headline Obama imposes new sanctions against North Korea. Subscribe