North Korea has tested a series of ICBMs in the past six months. Photo: Reuters / KCNA

The United States is ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea after imposing sanctions on two high-ranking officials involved in the country’s nuclear missile program.

Kim Jong-sik and Ri Pyong-chol were both said to be “key” players in the development of Pyongyang’s ICBM strategy.

In a statement, the US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stressed that Jong-sik and Pyong-chol had been crucial in helping North Korea switch its missile program from liquid to solid fuel, as well as increasing the rogue state’s ballistic missile capabilities.

“The Treasury is targeting leaders of North Korea’s ballistic missile programs as part of our maximum pressure campaign to isolate [North Korea] and achieve a fully denuclearized Korean Peninsula,” Mnuchin said.

This is just the latest in a series of sanctions imposed by the US and the United Nations. On Friday, the UN increased the pressure after North Korea’s recent intercontinental ballistic missile test.

The resolution passed by the Security Council involved limiting Pyongyang’s access to refined petroleum products and oil, as well as clamping down on its earnings from workers abroad.

But the decision prompted a tirade from the Hermit Kingdom, which is already reeling under a raft of sanctions from the US, the UN and the European Union.

“This is a violent breach of our republic’s sovereignty and an act of war that destroys the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and a wide region,” according to foreign ministry statement on Christmas Day.

The resolution will ban nearly 90% of refined petroleum exports to the Pyongyang regime by imposing a stringent cap of 500,000 barrels a year.

Further sanctions include changing the procedure in which North Koreans working abroad can send money home. This has been put back to two years instead of 12 months, which was originally proposed.

Still, Tuesday’s move by the US Treasury Department is largely symbolic, blocking any property, or interests, Jong-sik and Pyong-chol might have within the jurisdiction of the US. It also prohibits them from having any dealings with American citizens.

The standoff between the US and Kim Jong-un’s administration has raised fears of a new conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Washington has made it clear that all options, including military ones, are on the table, but it prefers a diplomatic solution.

Earlier this week, Russia again waded into the diplomatic row when it announced it was ready to act as a mediator.

“Russia’s readiness to clear the way for de-escalation is obvious,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, told the media.

In response, a spokesman for the US State Department, Justin Higgins, said Washington “has the ability to communicate with North Korea through a variety of diplomatic channels”.

“We want the North Korean regime to understand that there is a different path that it can choose, however it is up to North Korea to change course and return to credible negotiations,” he told the US media.

 

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