US seeks United Nations consent to intercept North Korean ships for weapon and fuel checks

The US is seeking UN consent to interdict North Korean ships at sea and inspect them to determine whether they are carrying weapons material or fuel into the country
The US is seeking UN consent to interdict North Korean ships at sea and inspect them to determine whether they are carrying weapons material or fuel into the country PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Trump administration on Wednesday (Sept 6) circulated a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council that would effectively empower the US Navy and Air Force to interdict North Korean ships at sea, inspect them to determine whether they are carrying weapons material or fuel into the country, and use "all necessary measures" to enforce compliance.

The language is included in a remarkably broad draft that would ban the shipment of all crude oil, refined petroleum and natural gas to North Korea, essentially seeking to plunge a country of 25 million people into a deep freeze this winter if its leaders fail to begin giving up their nuclear weapon and missile programmes.

The resolution - circulated three days after the North conducted its largest nuclear test to date - would also seek to block all the assets of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and virtually all the assets of the country's military and its sole political party.

The resolution, which the US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said this week she wanted to bring to a vote by next Monday, seems certain to meet vociferous objections from China and Russia. Both hold veto power at the Security Council.

But if the sections authorising interdictions at sea survive, it could set the stage for some of the tensest encounters on the high seas since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when president John F. Kennedy ordered a complete blockade around the island to prevent Soviet missiles from being installed.

The resolution calls for something far less comprehensive than a total blockade, which is widely considered an act of war. But it would authorise a committee of the Security Council to "designate vessels for nonconsensual inspections" and authorise all members of the United Nations - using military vessels and aircraft - "to inspect on the high seas any vessel designated by the committee".

That could set up the conditions for a conflict at sea.

If the crew of a North Korean ship failed to stop or resisted a boarding party, one senior military official acknowledged in recent days, the result could be an exchange of fire at a time when Pyongyang is threatening to use its nascent nuclear arsenal, and the US is warning of a "devastating response".

President Donald Trump spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the White House on Wednesday morning, just hours before the US sent its draft of the resolution to all 15 members of the Security Council.

Both Mr Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have opposed further sanctions, even after North Korea tested what it called a hydrogen bomb - experts have their doubts - on Sunday.

"We should not act out of emotions and push North Korea into a dead end," Mr Putin said at a meeting in Vladivostok, according to dispatches from South Korean reporters. "We must act with calm and avoid steps that could raise tensions."

That sets up a confrontation at the Security Council pitting the US, Britain and France against the other two permanent members.

Mr Trump appears to be using the resolution to highlight the contrast between the nations that support maximum sanctions pressure against the North and those seeking the status quo.

The Trump administration on Wednesday repeated a drastic - if highly unlikely - warning if UN action is blocked. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters aboard Air Force One during a flight from North Dakota that an executive order had been prepared that would authorise a halt in trade with "anybody that does trade with North Korea".

China is among dozens of nations that trade with the North.

Even some Democrats have joined the Trump administration in calling for an oil cutoff, including Senator Edward Markey. In an interview with CBS News on Wednesday, president Barack Obama's former defence secretary, Mr Ash Carter, said he supported "a strategy of coercive diplomacy" that would steadily increase pressure on the North if it continued to test its missiles and nuclear weapons, and would reduce sanctions if it complied with UN resolutions.

Mr Carter, now the director of the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, said he considered it "in China's interest" to "strangle North Korea", but said he was not optimistic, "because China has consistently disappointed".

The fate of the Trump administration's resolution may hinge in part on North Korean actions in the next few days. South Korea's intelligence and defence agencies have said they see preparations for another missile test from the North's main missile launch site on the northeast coast.

There is some speculation that the test could be aimed at the waters off Guam, which Mr Kim has said will be among his next targets.

That has created a behind-the-scenes debate inside the Trump administration over how to respond - whether to consider a pre-emptive strike on the missile, try to intercept it with anti-ballistic missile batteries, or simply let the test proceed, especially if the missile appears headed for splashdown in international waters.

Administration officials briefed members of Congress on the North Korean standoff on Wednesday, but they were vague about their plans, according to people who attended.

Even if the US managed to win approval of a complete ban on energy exports to the North, there is scepticism that it would be successful.

Mr Peter Hayes and Mr David Von Hippel of the Nautilus Institute, experts on North Korea's energy policies, argued in a paper this week that the country would adjust to an energy embargo.

The country, they wrote, "could quickly cut its non-military use by about 40 per cent of its annual oil use", substituting other fuels. "There will be little or no immediate impact on the Korean People's Army's nuclear or missile programmes," they added, and "little or no immediate impact on the KPA's routine or wartime ability to fight due to energy scarcity, given its short war strategy and likely stockpiling".

In a Skype conversation from Australia, Mr Hayes said that "what worries me is that the American government may not understand that this will not work".