US imposes sanctions on N. Korean missile experts

The United States levies sanctions on two of North Korea's most prominent officials involved in its missile programme, while Russia offers once again to mediate between the two sides to ease tensions.

Move is latest step in efforts aimed at forcing Pyongyang to abandon weapons programme

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW • The US has announced sanctions on two North Korean officials behind their country's ballistic missile programme, the latest steps in a campaign aimed at forcing Pyongyang to abandon its weapons programme.

The United States Treasury on Tuesday named the officials as Mr Kim Jong Sik and Mr Ri Pyong Chol. It said Mr Kim was reportedly a key figure in the North's efforts to switch its missile programme from liquid to solid fuel, while Mr Ri was said to be a key official in its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development.

Solid-fuel missiles can be fired on shorter notice, as they do not have to be filled with liquid fuel prior to launch.

"(The US) Treasury is targeting leaders of North Korea's ballistic missile programmes as part of our maximum pressure campaign to isolate (North Korea) and achieve a fully denuclearised Korean peninsula," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Experts say Mr Ri likely represents the North's Workers' Party on the missile programme. Born in 1948, he was partly educated in Russia and promoted when Mr Kim Jong Un started to rise through the ranks in the late 2000s. He met China's defence minister in 2008 as the air force commander and accompanied Mr Kim Jong Il on a visit to a Russian fighter jet factory in 2011, according to state media.

Mr Kim Jong Sik is a prominent rocket scientist who rose after playing a role in North Korea's first successful rocket launch in 2012. He started as a civilian aeronautics technician, but now wears the uniform of a military general at the Munitions Industry Department, according to experts and the South Korean government. Other details, including his age, are not known.

The largely symbolic steps against the North - which has defied years of multilateral and bilateral sanctions - block any property or interests the two officials might have within US jurisdiction and prohibit any dealings by US citizens with them.

The move followed new United Nations sanctions announced last Friday in response to North Korea's Nov 29 test of an ICBM that Pyongyang said put the entire US mainland within range of its nuclear weapons. Those sanctions sought to further limit North Korea's access to refined petroleum products and crude oil, and its earnings from workers abroad.

North Korea has declared the UN steps to be an act of war and tantamount to a complete economic blockade.

The stand-off between the US and North Korea has raised fears of a new conflict on the Korean peninsula, which has remained in a technical state of war since the 1950 to 1953 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Washington has said that all options, including military ones, are on the table in dealing with North Korea. It says it prefers a diplomatic solution, but that North Korea has given no indication it is willing to discuss denuclearisation.

Russia, which has long called for the two sides to hold negotiations, said on Tuesday it was ready to act as a mediator if the US and North Korea were willing for it to play such a role.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held talks by phone in which they discussed the North's nuclear programme.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said after the call that "Washington's aggressive rhetoric" and beefing up of its military presence in the region had heightened tensions and was unacceptable. It said Mr Lavrov underscored the need for "the fastest move to the negotiating process from the language of sanctions".

South Korea's Unification Ministry had forecast on Tuesday that North Korea would look to open negotiations with the US next year while continuing to seek recognition as a de facto nuclear power.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2017, with the headline 'US imposes sanctions on N. Korean missile experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe