Japan, US look to cut off North Korea’s oil supply

Allies reach for last economic resort after missile launch raises threat level

TOKYO — The U.S. and Japan will call for an international embargo on oil exports to North Korea in response to Tuesday’s launch of a ballistic missile over Japan, as the allies seek to strike at the lifeblood of Pyongyang’s weapons programs.

The ban will be proposed at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to be held in New York on Tuesday at the request of Japan, the U.S. and South Korea.

All three countries are on the same page regarding tighter sanctions. In a phone call Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed that now is the time for further pressure on North Korea, rather than dialogue.

Pyongyang “signaled its contempt for its neighbors” with the launch, Trump said in a statement. “Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation,” he warned, adding that “all options are on the table.”

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha, speaking by phone, affirmed the need for a new Security Council resolution calling for tougher economic sanctions. Abe is expected to arrive at his office about an hour early Wednesday morning for a phone call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Raising the stakes

Though this marks the fifth time North Korean missiles have flown over Japan, key differences from past cases indicate that the threat is greater this time.

The missile was launched from Sunan, near Pyongyang, around 5:58 a.m. and landed in the Pacific Ocean about 1,180km east of Cape Erimo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It flew about 2,700km, according to the Japanese government, suggesting that Pyongyang intended to prove that it can strike the American territory of Guam at any time.

Worryingly, North Korea’s nuclear technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, as indicated by a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report last month finding that the country has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit on a ballistic missile.

Tuesday’s launch also broke with patterns set by previous missile overflights of Japan. North Korea had concealed the true purpose of earlier demonstrations, calling them “satellite launches,” and provided advance notice. But Pyongyang gave no such warning this time, nor did it bother with the satellite facade. This suggests that the launch may have been intended as a direct threat to the U.S. and Japan.

Tokyo and Washington see quick, decisive action as necessary to avert a crisis. Past sanctions have done little to hinder Pyongyang, but an oil embargo that includes China, which North Korea relies on for the bulk of its supply, and Russia could deprive the regime of a vital resource, the thinking goes.
This may prove easier said than done. A full ban on oil exports could provoke a violent response from Pyongyang. Veto-wielding China and Russia are all but certain to object as well, likely dooming any such measure in the Security Council and potentially heightening tensions with the U.S. and Japan.
Risky though it may be, the oil embargo proposal is the last diplomatic card Tokyo and Washington have to play. The hope is that showing a willingness to take such drastic measures will spur Moscow and Beijing to action.

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