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US sanctions N Korean missile experts, Russia offers to mediate

Measures aimed at forcing Pyongyang to abandon ballistic missile programme

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW The US announced sanctions on two North Korean officials behind their country's ballistic missile programme on Tuesday, while Russia reiterated an offer to mediate to ease tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.

The new steps were the latest in a campaign aimed at forcing North Korea - which has defied years of multilateral and bilateral sanctions - to abandon a weapons programme aimed at developing nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the US.

The US Treasury named the officials as Kim Jong Sik and Ri Pyong Chol.

It said Kim was reportedly a key figure in North Korea's efforts to switch its missile programme from liquid to solid fuel, while Ri was reported to be a key official in its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development.

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

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 all the 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 declared the UN's 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 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Russia’s readiness to clear the way for de-escalation is obvious. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Russia’s offer to act as mediator

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.

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

"Russia's readiness to clear the way for de-escalation is obvious," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

The US State Department and White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Moscow's offer.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who made a similar offer on Monday, told US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a phone call on Tuesday that "Washington's aggressive rhetoric" and beefing up of its military presence in the region had heightened tensions and were unacceptable, Russia's foreign ministry said.

It said Mr Lavrov underscored the need for "the fastest move to the negotiating process from the language of sanctions".

Washington has stressed the need for all countries, especially Russia, and China - North Korea's main trading partner - to fully implement sanctions, including by cutting off oil supplies.

According to Chinese customs data, China exported no oil products to North Korea in November, apparently going above and beyond UN sanctions imposed earlier this year. - REUTERS

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