ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska—The United States is pressing North Korea's neighbors to check virtually all North Korean cargo crossing their borders by air, land and sea to fully enforce new U.N. sanctions, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.
As part of the response to North Korea's nuclear test, plans also are under way to expand radiation detection programs in East Asia to prevent Pyongyang from importing or exporting nuclear weapons material, said the official, who was traveling to Asia with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Rice, speaking to reporters en route to a refueling stop in Alaska, said firm enforcement of the sanctions is the best hope for persuading North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to reverse his isolated country's new nuclear status.
Still, she said there was only "a fair chance" that will happen.
Rice was headed to Japan, South Korea, China and Russia to coordinate approaches to North Korea and reaffirm longtime military alliances with Tokyo and Seoul.
Following North Korea's Oct. 9 nuclear test, the U.N. Security Council on Saturday approved a resolution containing the strictest sanctions it has imposed in a half-century. They include a ban on export or import of nuclear- and missile-related materials, heavy conventional armaments and luxury goods.
North Korea, which may be preparing a second nuclear test, said it was "nonsensical" to try to restrain it now that it has a nuclear arsenal.
"The resolution cannot be construed otherwise than (as) a declaration of war," the North Korean foreign ministry said in a statement Tuesday. "We will deliver merciless blows without hesitation to whoever tries to breach our sovereignty and right to survive under the excuse of carrying out the Security Council resolution."
Satellites reportedly have picked up suspicious movement of trucks and people at a site in North Korea's northeast that indicate preparations for a possible second nuclear test.
Rice acknowledged concerns about a second North Korean test and warned Pyongyang against that step, saying it would only deepen the country's isolation.
The U.N. resolution calls on countries to inspect cargo to or from North Korea that crosses their borders to search for major weapons and material that could be used in missile and nuclear programs.
The Bush administration has interpreted that language as a new mandate on countries to conduct aggressive screenings.
"We believe it is now a legal obligation for states to give very close scrutiny on their territories, in their ports, in their territorial waters and even in their airspace to any North Korean cargo," said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under State Department ground rules.
China and South Korea have voiced concerns that Washington-led punitive action against North Korea could bring instability and possible armed confrontation.
"Things must be done in such a way that they don't bring about an escalation of the situation into something uncontrollable," Chinese President Hu Jintao told a group of Japanese lawmakers visiting Beijing, the Kyodo news service reported.
China shares an 880-mile land border with North Korea that is crossed daily by trains and hundreds of trucks.
South Korean Prime Minister Han Myung-Sook said sanctions "must not be implemented in any way that could spark an armed clash," but instead should be aimed at pushing North Korea back to long-stalled six-nation talks to dismantle its nuclear programs.
State Department officials acknowledge that the touchiest question involves intercepting North Korean vessels in international waters, where the legal authority is often less clear than it is in another country's territory.
Rice and her aides said the United States isn't advocating a blockade or quarantine, such as that imposed around Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis.
Inspections of ships won't be random but rather "information-driven," Rice said, referring to intelligence tips that a vessel is carrying banned material.
The senior State Department official said North Korea has only a few major ports and a relatively low level of shipping traffic. "The problem is quite manageable," he said.
Under an existing program known as the Proliferation Security Initiative, the United States and other countries have intercepted and seized ships with material that can be used in weapons of mass destruction research. That program, however, is voluntary. About 80 countries participate in the effort, but South Korea and China aren't among them.
The Bush administration also hopes to expand the use of radiation detectors in a defensive ring around North Korea, the senior official said.
Such detectors are in use at some U.S. border crossings and in a program at U.S. ports called the Container Security Initiative, but they work only at close range.
Rice said that at her first two stops, she will strongly reaffirm the United States' commitment to the defense of Japan and South Korea.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the senior envoy on the nuclear crisis, said in Seoul that Washington was unhappy with Seoul's decision not to suspend one of its major projects with North Korea under its "sunshine policy" of long-term economic engagement. Hill said a South Korean tourism business at Mount Geumgang, a resort in the North visited mainly by South Koreans, "seems to be designed to give money to the North Korean authorities."
(Strobel reported from Alaska, Johnson from Seoul, South Korea.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map