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Donald Trump is putting pressure on China to cut off oil exports to Pyongyang, as part of a stepped-up campaign to convince North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, and HR McMaster, national security adviser, on Tuesday said the Trump administration wanted China to go beyond existing UN sanctions by cutting off supplies of crude oil to North Korea. The move would impose significant economic pain on the hermit regime.
“The president would like to see China cut the oil off,” Mr Tillerson said at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank. “The last time the North Koreans came to the table, it was because China cut the oil off. Three days later the North Koreans were at the table talking.”
In what appeared to be a change of policy, Mr Tillerson added that the US was prepared to talk with Pyongyang at any time, a reversal from previous statements that North Korea would have to halt tests for a period of time before negotiations could be entertained.
“We’re ready to have the first meeting without preconditions. Let’s just meet. We can talk about the weather if you want,” he said. “We can talk about whether it’s gonna be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face.”
While his language was a departure from past comments, the White House issued a statement in response, saying the president’s views “have not changed”.
In a separate speech, Gen McMaster said the US wanted China to take advantage of its economic relations with North Korea to impose more pressure. “We want . . . China to recognise that the time is now to do more beyond existing UN Security Council resolutions,” he said. “The economic coercive power is considerable, especially the area of oil and refined fuel products.”
Under Mr Trump, the US has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign that includes a range of bilateral and multilateral sanctions aimed at convincing Mr Kim to negotiate, with the end goal of ending his missile programmes.
Gen McMaster said that while the US-led effort had seen “tremendous momentum”, the international community needed to step up pressure on North Korea to avoid the possibility of a military conflict. “It is time for all nations to do more beyond UN Security Council resolutions, to make the most out of what might be our last best chance to avoid military conflict,” said Gen McMaster, who recently warned that the odds of a conflict on the Korean peninsula were “increasing every day”.
Mr Tillerson said the US had held discussions with China about how to safeguard North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in the event that the regime collapsed — an important development since China had long refused to conduct contingency planning with the US.
He said the US had also assured China that should US troops cross into North Korea as part of a conflict, they would later “retreat back south of the 38th parallel” that divides the two Koreas. In addition to concerns about North Korean refugees flowing into China because of regime collapse, Beijing is worried about losing the buffer that keeps US troops far from its border.
US officials say the sanctions are starting to squeeze North Korea. Mr Tillerson said fuel prices had spiked 90 per cent, before settling at roughly 50 per cent higher than before. But he said Mr Trump now wanted China to apply more leverage.
There is also a recognition that Pyongyang is making faster-than-expected progress towards developing a nuclear missile that can hit the US. Last month, it undertook its third test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong 15, which has the range to reach the US east coast. North Korea has yet to demonstrate that it has developed a re-entry vehicle that could carry a warhead back into the earth’s atmosphere without destructing.
Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, tried to convince China to support an oil embargo following the ICBM test, according to one person familiar with the efforts. But the Chinese have resisted, partly because they are annoyed that the US recently put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that some analysts said had little value and would be an obstacle to diplomacy.