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 U.S. Coast Guard forces to stop and search vessels in Asia-Pacific waters, senior U.S. 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 U.S.-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 programs, the officials said.
North Korea may be only a few months away from completing development of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. 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.
Tighter sanctions plus a more assertive approach at sea could dial up tensions at a time when fragile diplomacy between North and South Korea has gained momentum. It would also stretch U.S. military resources needed elsewhere, possibly incur massive new costs and fuel misgivings among some countries in the region.
The initiative, which is still being developed, would be fraught with challenges that could risk triggering North Korean retaliation and dividing the international community.
U.S. experts are developing legal arguments for doing more to stop sanctions-busting vessels, citing the last U.N. Security Council resolution which they say opened the door by calling on states to inspect suspect ships on the high seas or in their waters.
Washington is also drawing up rules of engagement aimed at avoiding armed confrontation at sea, the officials said.
The Coast Guard declined to address whether it might deploy ships to the Asia-Pacific region but acknowledged its ties to countries there. “Future ship deployments would depend on U.S. foreign policy objectives and the operational availability of our assets,” said spokesman Lieutenant Commander Dave French.
‘THE MORE PARTNERS WE HAVE’
A senior South Korean government official said there had been discussions over “intensified maritime interdictions,” including at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Vancouver last month where U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pressed counterparts on the issue.
“The more partners we have, the more resources we have to dedicate to the effort,” said Chris Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation. He declined to talk about discussions with specific countries.
Reuters reported in December that Russian tankers had supplied fuel to North Korea at sea in a violation of sanctions. Washington also said at the time it had evidence that vessels from several countries, including China, had engaged in shipping oil products and coal. China denied the allegation.