US, allies seek new ways to pressure N. Korea over nuclear program

Envoys from the US, South Korea, and Japan met Wednesday to discuss ways of curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions amid concerns of growing instability in the isolated nation. 

Lee Jin-man/AP
South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator Hwang Joon-kook met with US and Japanese envoys on Wednesday in Seoul to discuss North Korea's nuclear program.

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Nuclear envoys from the US, Japan, and South Korea met in Seoul Wednesday to discuss ways to increase pressure on North Korea after its suspected test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile earlier this month. The envoys announced plans to work with China to bring Pyongyang back to the nuclear negotiating table – and stated that more sanctions for North Korea could follow.

"We held specific discussions on ways to deter North Korea's provocations and increase the effectiveness of sanctions," South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator Hwang Joon-kook told reporters after the roughly three-hour meeting.

The reunion comes on the heels of a recent North Korea claim that it has tested a new kind of missile and created a nuclear weapon compact enough to mount on long-range rockets. Many outside analysts are skeptical of Pyongyang’s claims, but if true, they would be a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, Reuters reports.

Concerns are growing about possible instability and leadership challenges in the isolated nation. Earlier this month, for example, intelligence reports emerged alleging that leader Kim Jong-un executed a top defense minister.  

"In a sense, they [North Korea] have given us no choice but to cooperate on enhancing pressure on North Korea," Sung Kim, the US envoy, told reporters.

Attendees also discussed renewing long-dormant six-party talks that involve Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang, focused on the denuclearization of North Korea in exchange for economic aid and diplomatic benefits.

The US and South Korean envoys are scheduled to travel to China this week in hopes that Beijing can use its economic leverage to pressure Pyongyang over weapons development.

China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and aid donor, reports Agence France-Presse.

For the first time, North Korea’s human rights record could come into play as well, reports The New York Times. Until now, Pyongyang’s “highly delicate” track record on rights has been considered a separate issue from nuclear negotiations.

Many observers have called for a new approach to negotiations with North Korea, reports the AFP, as multiple rounds of UN sanctions have had little impact in curtailing its nuclear program.

The New York Times reports that “other options” are under discussion, including:

Tightening inspections of cargo traveling in and out of North Korea and squeezing the source of hard currency North Korea earns through the tens of thousands of workers it sends to factories, building sites, logging camps and other work sites in China, Russia and countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The North Korean workers are estimated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year but toil in poor, sometimes slavelike, working conditions and have most of their wages confiscated by their government, according to former workers and rights groups.

On a much more grassroots level, a group of 30 female activists controversially drew attention to the longstanding and tense divide on the Korean peninsula earlier this week, crossing the demilitarized zone between the Koreas and calling for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, which ended in an armistice, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

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