US says China, Russia have leverage to stop N Korea nuclear test

Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen as Pyongyang has stepped up launches of weapons, including a banned ICBM.

The United States believes China and Russia have leverage they can use to persuade North Korea not to resume nuclear bomb testing, according to a senior US administration official.

The official, who spoke to the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, said that while the US had been saying since May that North Korea was preparing to resume nuclear testing for the first time since 2017, it was not clear when it might conduct such a test.

South Korea has also been warning of a seventh nuclear test for months, while the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog said last week that Pyongyang had been readying for a test.

“We have a high level of confidence that they have made preparations,” the US official told Reuters. “We believe that they could do this … I can’t tell you ‘we think it will be this day for the following reasons,’ because we just don’t have that level of knowledge.”

Washington wanted to see Russia and China do what they could to dissuade Pyongyang.

“We do think that they (North Korea) are making calculations about the degree of receptivity for others in the region, I think, particularly Russia and China. And I think that the Russian and Chinese attitudes do have influence with them.”

The US has asked for a public meeting of the UN Security Council, where Moscow and Beijing are among the five permanent members with veto powers, to discuss North Korea after a spate of missile launches, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that South Korea and Japan detected on Thursday.

North Korea is banned from conducting nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches under Security Council sanctions, which have been strengthened over the years to try and cut off funding for its weapons programmes.

But growing discord in the 15-member body, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, has undermined the consensus on how to deal with North Korea. In May, Russia and China vetoed a US-led effort to impose more UN sanctions on Pyongyang over its renewed ballistic missile tests, having backed tighter sanctions in 2017.

The Vigilant Storm US-South Korea joint military exercises, which began on Monday, have been extended because of the North Korean weapons launches [File: Yonhap via Reuters]

The US official said Pyongyang might have delayed its resumption of nuclear testing because of China, its closest ally, which recently concluded its Communist Party Congress, an event held once every five years.

North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak might also have delayed military developments, he said, making the country “more focused on ways in which they could get support from particularly China”.

“China and Russia have long been on the record as opposing the DPRK nuclear programme,” the official said referring to North Korea by the initials of its official name. “So … it’s our belief, and certainly it is our expectation, that they will use the influence that they have to try and get the DPRK not to conduct a nuclear test.”

Reiterating calls for North Korea to resume dialogue with the US, which collapsed over sanctions relief in 2019, the official said Washington was prepared to engage directly with Pyongyang and to discuss humanitarian assistance.

North Korea has conducted a record number of weapons launches this year and this week’s tests have taken place amid ongoing large-scale military exercises between the US and South Korea, which Pyongyang claims are aggressive and a “provocation”.

The ICBM was among three ballistic missiles fired on Thursday, a day after it launched at least 20 missiles, the most in a single day, including one that landed off South Korea’s coast for the first time.

Seoul responded by sending fighter jets to fire air-to-ground missiles into waters north of its maritime border.

On Thursday, the US and South Korea said they were extending the so-called Vigilant Storm exercises by a day because of North Korea’s ICBM test, a decision Pyongyang called “very dangerous”.

Shortly before midnight, it fired a barrage of artillery shells into a maritime “buffer zone” between the two Koreas, according to Seoul’s military.

About 80 artillery rounds were fired at 11.28pm (14:28 GMT), the Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Friday morning.

The barrage was a “clear violation” of the 2018 agreement that established the buffer zone in a bid to reduce tensions between the two countries, it added.

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