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A fifth North Korean nuclear test could trigger new sanctions including an effort to choke off hard currency earnings by its workers abroad, the top U.S. diplomat for the Asia-Pacific region has said.
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel made clear he was speaking about the possibility of fresh sanctions by the U.N. Security Council, by the United States on its own, or by a group of like-minded states from the European Union and Southeast Asia, along with the United States. If the North were to test a fifth nuclear device, the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan could also take unspecified "defense-related measures,"
Some experts expect North Korea to conduct a fifth nuclear test in the near future, possibly before a ruling party congress in early May, following an embarrassing failure of a test of an intermediate-range missile last week.
Estimates of North Korean workers abroad vary widely but a study by the South's state-run Korea Institute for National Unification put the number as high as 150,000, primarily in China and Russia, sending back as much as $900 million annually. North Koreans are known to work abroad in restaurants and on construction sites, and also as doctors.
The effectiveness of current, or any new, sanctions depends heavily on them being fully implemented by China, North Korea's neighbor, the closest thing it has to an ally and by far its largest trading partner, U.S. officials and analysts say.
MORE WEIGHT ON SANCTIONS
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee downplayed the prospect that an upcoming visit to New York by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong to attend a U.N. climate conference would create an opening for engagement.
"At a time when the North is talking of more provocation, I think it's time to put more weight on sanctions rather than dialogue," Jeong told a briefing in Seoul on Wednesday.
Russel laid out what he called the possible "universe" of how the U.S. government and others might respond to a fifth test and he acknowledged that sanctions have failed to deter North Korea, which tested its first nuclear device in October 2006. He stressed that no decisions had yet been made and said he could not preview a response to an event that has yet to occur.
Russel said it would take time to judge how well the latest sanctions were being enforced, but Beijing had "exhausted traditional options of encouraging and cajoling and persuading the North Koreans and they have clearly shifted to the application of pressure."
"There is an argument to be made that serious and sustained pressure on North Korea has never before been undertaken," he said. "The degree to which the North Korean economy depends on China and access to China is such that this stated resolve on the part of China, I think, constitutes something of a new ball game."
However, Frank Jannuzi, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer for East Asia and the Pacific, voiced skepticism that China had had a change of heart and was now willing to apply much more significant pressure on the North.
"The Chinese are the one country that still has economic leverage but they are reluctant to put it to full use because they don't think it'll work and they are worried about the costs," he said, citing long-standing Chinese fears that severe sanctions could trigger "conflict, or refugees, or turmoil."