US stresses pressure campaign on North Korea, while South proposes immediate action-for-action

US ambassador to Japan William Hagerty speaks during the Wall Street Journal CEO Conference in Tokyo on May 15, 2018.
US ambassador to Japan William Hagerty speaks during the Wall Street Journal CEO Conference in Tokyo on May 15, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - The United States will keep up maximum pressure on North Korea until significant steps are achieved over its denuclearisation, said US Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty on Tuesday (May 15).

"From the standpoint of US leadership - President (Donald) Trump, Secretary of State (Mike) Pompeo, National Security Advisor (John) Bolton - everybody has been very consistent that the pressure is going to stay in place," Mr Hagerty told The Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting in Tokyo.

However, South Korean academic Moon Chung In, who is an adviser to President Moon Jae In on foreign policy and natural security issues, said at the same forum that an "action-for-action" approach would be preferred.

If the North strikes a "big deal" with the US, he said, "the US should ask the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to adopt a resolution to immediately relax or eliminate the sanctions on North Korea. But of course it has to be action for action."

When asked about previous cases when sanctions were relaxed only for Pyongyang to renege on its promises, Dr Moon appeared sanguine. He said: "We have learnt from these past mistakes. This time, thingswill be different."

His comments came hours after Mr Hagerty had told the forum: "We need to see tangible results, and we do not expect to wind up in a situation like that in the past where there had been some kind of incremental improvement leading to some reward. Those days are behind us."

What is at stake for North Korea, he said, is economic development that will lead to a brighter future for the impoverished country.

"We are not talking about writing blank cheques that can go towards some other nefarious activity," he said. "We are talking about real know-how that can lead to progress for the North Korean people."

Mr Pompeo has already met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang twice, laying the groundwork for a historic summit between Mr Trump and Mr Kim in Singapore on June 12.

At the same forum on Tuesday, US Ambassador to China Terry Branstad had dismissed the possibility that the US will agree to fundamentally withdraw its troops from the South if the North were to agree to a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear weapons.

What the US can offer, he said, is "an opportunity for North Korea to join the rest of the world - electricity, food, better job opportunities".

But when asked if Mr Kim would face risks of being deposed by his own people if Pyongyang were to give up its nuclear weapons or get too close to the US, Dr Moon admitted that it was not possible to foresee the military response.

"Our intelligence agency has shown a report that Kim Jong Un is in full control of the North Korean military, party and the Cabinet. However, there is some danger if North Korea is going to give up its nuclear weapons and go through the arms reduction talks with South Korea and allow open reform, then the military will be marginalised and the party and Cabinet will gain further strength," he said.

"Once the military's institutional interest is severely compromised, what will the military response be? We do not know. It is yet to be seen."

The comments come amid growing concerns of a chasm in North-east Asia on the way forward on the nuclear issue. China, like South Korea, prefer a more reconciliatory approach. But Japan, like the US, wants a global maximum pressure campaign.

This comes as a series of ballistic missiles had fallen into waters uncomfortably close to its shores last year. Two had even flown over Hokkaido.

Tokyo also wants a full resolution to the longstanding abduction issue, stemming from the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

China and South Korea have expressed support for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on this issue, which Mr Trump has also promised will be on the agenda at the June 12 meeting.

Officially, Tokyo recognises 17 people as having been abducted, though many more are suspected to be victims. Five of them were returned in 2002. Of the other 12, Pyongyang insists eight have died while the other four have never stepped foot in the country.

North Korea's state-run KCNA agency slammed Japan in a commentary on Sunday over its focus on the abductees. "The reactionaries of Japan are hyping the 'issue of abduction' which had already been settled," it said. "This is just mean and foolish behaviour to stem the trend of peace on the Korean peninsula."

Mr Hagerty stressed that there was "no daylight" in the US' security alliance with Japan. He also lauded the commitment of countries such as Australia, Britain and Canada in ensuring the strict enforcement of United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea.

These countries are working together out of US bases in Japan - including the Kadena Air Base in south-western Okinawa and the Yokosuka Naval Base south of Tokyo - to curtail illicit maritime activities such as ship-to-ship transfers of goods with North Korean-flagged vessels.

Japan has been stepping up patrols of the waters between its shores and the Korean peninsula, and has already flagged several cases this year of suspected ship-to-ship transfers between North Korean and foreign-registered vessels

In the most recent incident on May 3, a Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force ship spotted a North Korean tanker alongside a South Korean-registered cargo vessel in the East China Sea. Seoul stresses that nothing untoward has happened.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera was quoted by Kyodo News as saying: "It is not normal to see a ship come alongside another ship on the high seas. But the South Korean side said it has not confirmed any ship-to-ship transfer of goods. I think that is so."

The report on Tuesday also cited government sources as saying there was no noticeable difference in the ships' drafts, or how low in the water they sat, which indicates that no cargo transfer had taken place.