WASHINGTON/MOSCOW • Russia yesterday accused the United States of trying to provoke North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into "flying off the handle" over his missile programme to hand Washington a pretext to destroy his country.
In some of his most robust comments on the subject to date, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also flatly rejected a US call, made earlier in the day, to cut ties with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile programme and said US policy towards North Korea was deeply flawed.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have flared since North Korea said on Wednesday that it had successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile in a "breakthrough" that puts the US mainland within range of its nuclear weapons.
Following the test, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called for other countries to sever all ties with Pyongyang, including cutting trade links and expelling North Korean workers.
At an emergency UN Security Council meeting, she warned the North Korean regime "will be utterly destroyed" if a war breaks out and that President Donald Trump had called his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping "and told him that we have come to the point that China must cut off the oil from North Korea".
While saying "our hopes are that China will show leadership and follow through", Ms Haley also issued a warning: "China can do this on its own, or we can take the oil situation into our own hands."
Mr Trump, in a tweet, said yesterday that China appeared to have had little impact on the North Korean leader, expressing wonder that his people and military "put up" with conditions there. "The Chinese envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man," Mr Trump said. "Hard to believe his people, and the military, put up with living in such horrible conditions. Russia and China condemned the launch."
Mr Lavrov said the way the US was handling the situation was dangerously provocative.
"The latest US actions look designed to deliberately provoke Pyongyang into taking new extreme action," Mr Lavrov told reporters in Belarus, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry transcript. He said he was referring to joint US-South Korean military exercises planned for this month, which he said US officials had intimated to Russia would not take place until spring to open a window for tensions to be defused.
"We were encouraged by that approach. And then suddenly... they announced large-scale exercises in December. We have the impression that it was all done specially to get Kim Jong Un to 'fly off the handle' and take another reckless step."
The air forces of the US and South Korea are scheduled to hold a regular joint drill early this month with six US F-22 Raptor stealth fighters taking part.
"The Americans need to explain to us all if they want to find a pretext to destroy North Korea. Let them say it directly... then we can take a decision about how to react," said Mr Lavrov.
Moscow sells oil products to North Korea and thousands of North Korean workers toil in Russia, sending remittances back to the authorities in Pyongyang. Mr Lavrov said Ms Haley's call for the world to isolate North Korea was wrong. "We regard this negatively," he said. "We have already said many times that sanctions pressure has exhausted itself."
He also complained that the US was "totally ignoring" a UN demand for talks with North Korea."I think it's a big mistake," said Mr Lavrov.
In its response to the US request for an embargo, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the country had "always implemented full, comprehensive, serious and strict resolutions".
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE