US plots to cut off N Korea's funding

US plots to cut off N Korea's funding
By Francis Harris in Washington
(Filed: 15/02/2005)

The United States has secretly agreed a package of measures aimed at severing North Korea's illicit funding from counterfeiting, drugs trafficking and missile sales in an attempt to halt the Stalinist regime's nuclear weapons programme, it was reported yesterday.

The classified measures, referred to as a "tool kit", were bolted together before last week's announcement by North Korea that it possesses nuclear weapons. Even before that, United States intelligence estimated that it had between one and eight warheads.

The American measures included shutting down bank accounts and shell companies established by the regime of Kim Jong-il, using techniques honed in the struggle against al-Qa'eda. The funds are believed to be used to build nuclear weapons.

Officials told the New York Times that the package could form the core of a sanctions programme should Washington be able to persuade Japan and China to join an economic attack. Pyongyang has stated that it views sanctions as an act of war.

While the measures are not seen primarily as a means to bring about regime change in North Korea, it might have that beneficial side-effect, the officials said.

President George W Bush was said to have been personally involved in the new policy. He is known to feel a strong personal distaste for Kim, pointing out that the North Korean leader has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to die of starvation.

The Americans are keenly aware that the regime is in desperate financial straits and will do anything to get easy sources of cash. For years, the North Koreans have traded anything they could get their hands on.

But the move is also extremely risky because no one is quite sure just how unstable Kim is.

United States officials said some of the "tool kit" policies were already being used. Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, told the New York Times: "We have been working with our allies and partners for some time now to stop North Korea's illegal activities, especially in counterfeiting and narcotics."

He then directly linked North Korea's organised crime programme to the funding of its nuclear ambitions, saying: "It must make a strategic decision and eliminate its nuclear weapons programme."

Mr McClellan also made a clear effort to make plain that America was not planning military action against Pyongyang. "No one has an interest in attacking North Korea," he said yesterday.

Most analysts rule out any kind of pre-emptive strike on North Korean nuclear facilities, but the United States would be expected to fight if the South was attacked.

South Korea has played down last week's nuclear announcement from the North. The South's unification minister, Chung Dong-young, said yesterday that it was "too early for us to call the North a nuclear state" when it had not been independently confirmed. "We should maintain our policy of reconciliation and co-operation with North Korea despite fresh uncertainty over its nuclear programme,'' he said.

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