World

US preparing high-seas crackdown on N Korea sanctions evaders: Report

Washington talking to regional partners about intercepting ships suspected of violating sanctions

The Trump administration and key Asian allies are preparing to expand interceptions of ships suspected of violating sanctions on North Korea, a plan that could include deploying US Coast Guard forces to stop and search vessels in Asia-Pacific waters, senior US officials said.

Washington has been talking to regional partners, including Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore, about coordinating a stepped-up crackdown that would go further than ever before in an attempt to squeeze Pyongyang's use of seagoing trade to feed its nuclear missile programme, several officials said.

While suspect ships have been intercepted before, the emerging strategy would expand the scope of such operations but stop short of imposing a naval blockade on North Korea.

Pyongyang has warned it would consider a blockade an act of war.

The strategy calls for closer tracking and possible seizure of ships suspected of carrying banned weapons components and other prohibited cargo to or from North Korea, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

PACIFIC COMMAND

Depending on the scale of the campaign, the US could consider beefing up the naval and air power of its Pacific Command, they said.

The US-led initiative, which has not been previously reported, shows Washington's increasing urgency to force North Korea into negotiations over the abandonment of its weapons programmes, the officials said.

North Korea may be only a few months away from completing development of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland, despite existing international sanctions that, at times, have been sidestepped by smuggling and ship-to-ship transfers at sea of banned goods, according to officials.

"There is no doubt we all have to do more, short of direct military action, to show (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un we mean business," said a senior administration official.

The White House declined official comment.

The effort could target vessels on the high seas or in the territorial waters of countries that choose to cooperate.

It was unclear, however, to what extent the campaign might extend beyond Asia.

- REUTERS

WORLD