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N Korea faces build-up of naval power

Deborah Cameron / Sydney Morning Herald | October 19 2006

THE few Japanese fishing boats still present in North Korean waters have been ordered to leave, as prospects grow of a naval blockade to suppress the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong-il.

The US, whose 7th Fleet is based in Japan, has mobilised vessels including the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and its strike group for "exercises" in the region. Guided missile carriers and destroyers were also being deployed, the US Navy said.

The long-planned naval exercises involving the US fleet and ships from Japan's Self Defence Force are now taking place in an atmosphere of high tension.

United Nations sanctions authorise the boarding of North Korean vessels to search for contraband, but the North Korean leader has said he will treat any boarding as an act of war.

A Chinese envoy, Tang Jiaxuan, visited Mr Kim in Pyongyang yesterday, bearing an undisclosed message from President Hu Jintao. Beijing said the visit was "very significant".

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, discussed enforcement of sanctions with the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and Foreign Minister, Taro Aso, in Tokyo yesterday.

The sanctions resolution, passed this week by the Security Council, prohibits the flow of weapons, nuclear technology and money to designated people and entities in North Korea. It also outlaws trade in "luxury goods", a measure directly aimed at Mr Kim, who enjoys fine food and drink while his 23 million subjects live on the verge of starvation.

In her meetings with Mr Aso, Dr Rice emphasised co-operation between Japan, China, South Korea, Australia and Russia in the effort against North Korea.

China, which is inspecting trucks at its border, has said it will not stop ships. Because of its pacifist constitution, Japan believes that its navy cannot take aggressive steps to stop, board or search ships, but is allowed to provide refuelling and other support.

South Korea, which is still considering whether to tighten border inspections, has said nothing of searches at sea. The hard work of stopping and boarding North Korean freighters seems increasingly likely to fall to the US and Australian naval forces.

Australia's help to Japan follows a precedent set in Iraq, where it provided protection to Japanese engineers posted in the country's relatively peaceful south.

Later yesterday, Dr Rice said the way was still open to North Korea to negotiate on its nuclear weapons program. She was speaking in Seoul following talks with the South Korean Foreign Minister, Ban Ki-moon.

Military analysts have begun to discuss a naval blockade of North Korea, which they say would require immense resources.

 

 

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