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Tillerson takes North Korea pressure campaign to Asia

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes his pressure campaign against North Korea to Asian leaders on Sunday as the US intensifies its efforts to isolate Pyongyang.

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Nicole Gaouette

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes his pressure campaign against North Korea to Asian leaders on Sunday as the US intensifies its efforts to isolate Pyongyang.

The Trump administration has made North Korea a top priority, with Tillerson announcing an international pressure campaign in April that US officials and observers say is beginning to tighten the noose on Pyongyang.

The two-pronged effort focuses on China, the source of 90 percent of Pyongyang's trade, but also on nations around the world that use North Korea's workers, host its consulates and companies, buy its military equipment and allow its planes to transit or land on their territory.

Countries worldwide are responding, cutting back on North Korean guest worker programs, flights and diplomatic missions, US officials say. India, Pyongyang's third largest trading partner, is halting all trade apart from food and medicine. Malaysia is one of several countries making it harder for North Koreans to enter the country.

UN resolution

A new US-drafted UN resolution could cut as much as $1 billion from North Korean export revenue and could come before the Security Council for a vote as soon as Saturday.

And Washington isn't done turning up the heat.

"Right now we're still in the stage of elevating pressure on the North Korean regime, elevating their feeling of isolation," Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs, told reporters. That means asking countries to "enforce the UN Security Council resolutions" and "to drastically reduce their interactions with Pyongyang."

When Tillerson sits down Sunday in the Philippines with leaders at an annual forum of the 27-member Association of East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, he'll use larger meetings to ask countries to consider ousting Pyongyang from the group, Thornton said.

"We'll continue to explore this and continue to, I think, push the organization to think about what kinds of suspension measures or requirements or stipulations might be included in the future," Thornton said.

Even as the top US diplomat seeks to ratchet up the pressure, he threw an olive branch to North Korea during remarks to the press on Tuesday: "We hope that at some point, they will begin to understand that and that we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future that will give them the security they seek," he said.

Until that happens, Tillerson said, "this is going to be a continued effort to put ever greater pressure on the North Korean regime because our other options, obviously, are not particularly attractive."

Tillerson will keep hammering that message in his smaller ASEAN meetings, too.

For Tillerson's interlocutors worldwide, this is beginning to be a familiar experience: When the top US diplomat meets with counterparts, many are finding that he's arriving prepared with information on their countries' connections to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and suggestions on how they can reduce them.

Full-court press

A public version of this full-court press appeared in a July announcement that the US would not, as had been expected, lift sanctions on Sudan. The State Department said it needed to ensure Sudan is making enough progress on counterterrorism and humanitarian access and that it wanted to check "that Sudan is committed to the full implementation of UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea."

According to a 2016 UN report, Sudan has bought ground-to-air missiles from a North Korean front company under sanctions since 2009.

On Aug. 2, the US added sanctions on people or groups that do business with North Korean banks; buy metals, minerals or textiles from the country; sell it fuel, crude oil or gas; and engage in online business with the government, including online gambling sites it runs.

The US is also pushing for tougher steps in its latest UN Security Council resolution, which could be voted on as soon as Saturday. The resolution would ban North Korean exports of seafood, coal, lead, lead ore, iron and iron ore.

The goal is to halt North Korea's aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles capable of striking the US and elsewhere, a mission given added urgency after two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July. China is central to this drive and is the focus of other administration efforts -- and some frustration, mostly displayed in tweets by President Donald Trump.

But officials are sounding upbeat about the broader pressure campaign. When Tillerson announced it at the UN in April, he asked countries to fully implement UN sanctions against North Korea, suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with the country, and increase it's financial isolation.

"We will not hesitate to sanction third-country entities and individuals supporting North Korea's illegal activities," he warned.

On Aug. 2, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, "we believe the pressure campaign is working, because we are seeing success" with countries rejecting North Korean workers, who are a huge source of revenue for the country, and in limiting Pyongyang's diplomatic presence.-"We are seeing some of these countries adhere to what we're asking them to do.-And these are countries all around the world," Nauert added.

Nauert wouldn't name specific countries "for security reasons."

North Korea sends workers to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Russia, China, and a slew of African countries. Estimates of North Korean workers overseas range from 50,000 to 200,000, with their labor earning the the government as much as $2 billion to $3 billion a year.

The national airline, Air Koryo, now only flies to cities in China and Russia after other Asian nations and Kuwait dropped flights last year.

The effort is still in "the early stages," Nauert said. "We're working this one hard, and a lot of other countries care about it just as much as we do."

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