United States increase stress on North Korea over alleged financial crimes

The United States demanded Tuesday that South Korea join efforts to curb Pyongyang's alleged financial crimes, despite the North's threat to boycott nuclear talks if U.S. sanctions are not lifted. In another move expected to anger the North, South Korea announced it would partially cooperate with a United States-led international drive to block trafficking in weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang believes Washington's Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI, is aimed against the North. North Korea never responds immediately to outside developments, but the latest U.S. and South Korean moves will likely affect efforts to reconvene talks on eliminating the North's nuclear program, an expert said.

"If something happens that can be considered criticism of North Korea, it could be negative for the six-party talks," said Park Joon-young, a professor at Seoul's Ewha Womans University. "But counterfeiting is too serious a problem for the U.S. to ignore."

On Monday, a team from the U.S. Treasury Department met with South Korean diplomats to discuss Washington's evidence for its claims of the North's involvement in counterfeiting, money laundering, and trading in weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Daniel Glaser urged South Korea "to further strengthen its regime in the area of WMD proliferation by focusing efforts to financially isolate WMD proliferators and their support networks," the embassy said in a statement Tuesday.

"Glaser discussed U.S. efforts to warn its financial sector of illicit finance threats worldwide, including those emanating from North Korea, and urged (South Korea) to take similar steps," the embassy said.

The U.S. Embassy declined to give more specifics on what actions it wanted Seoul to take to halt the North's alleged illegal activity. Washington has slapped sanctions on a Macau bank and North Korean companies believed to be fronts for weapons proliferation to halt the alleged illegal actions, which the U.S. says include drug trafficking.

North Korea, which had used the Macau bank for decades as a main channel for outside funds, has reacted angrily to the sanctions, calling them a "sheer lie" and evidence of U.S. hostility against it.

Pyongyang has said it won't return to international talks on its nuclear programs until the sanctions are lifted. But Washington has rejected the demand, saying the matter is a criminal matter unrelated to the nuclear talks.

Seoul been noncommittal on whether it shares a U.S. belief that the North engaged in illicit activities, apparently out of concern it could affect a resolution of the nuclear issue.

"Our position is that we have serious concern about illegal activities like counterfeiting," Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday at his weekly briefing for journalists. Still, he cautioned that "issues unrelated to the six-party talks should not obstruct progress."

Wary of Pyongyang's anger, South Korea hasn't committed itself to the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which involves maritime drills to stop and search ships suspected of carrying nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, materials to make them, or missiles to deliver them.

But the South said Tuesday it will provide "possible cooperation" to the initiative, sending delegates to observe exercises and including weapons of mass destruction interdiction drills in its regular military exercises with the U.S.

South Korea made clear, however, that it was not considering taking part in PSI drills or providing logistical support.

"South Korea shares the purpose of PSI and will cooperate on a case-by-case basis, but is not considering formally joining" the drive, Ban told journalists.

North Korea has condemned the PSI, claiming it demonstrates Washington's hostile policy. The impoverished North has long been accused of earning hard currency by selling missiles and associated technology.

About a dozen PSI drills have been held since the program was launched in 2003 with 11 countries. Since then, five other countries have actively participated, while 60 more expressed support of its goals, reports the AP.

D.M.