US mulls harsher, wider N. Korea sanctions

The United States is weighing sanctions on countries doing business with North Korea and looking for ways to revive strained relations with Russia, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says.

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At a committee hearing on Tuesday, he also defended President Donald Trump’s plans for steep reductions in US spending on diplomacy and foreign aid.

In all, the Trump proposal cuts about 32 per cent from US diplomacy and aid budgets, or nearly $US19 billion ($A25 billion).

Senators from both major parties charged that such cuts would ultimately hurt America.

Washington has sought to increase economic and political pressure on Pyongyang because of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Tillerson said Washington is discussing North Korea with all of its allies, and seeing some response from China, its biggest trading partner.

He said North Korea would top the agenda at next week’s high-level talks between US and Chinese officials.

Tillerson said the US would have to work with other countries to deny North Korea access to basics such as oil and will have to consider whether to impose sanctions on those doing business with North Korea.

Because the US has no trade with the North, its strongest way to impose economic pressure is through “secondary sanctions” that threaten companies from third countries with losing access to the US market if they deal with Pyongyang.

Asked whether the US wanted to see an Iran-style global embargo to deny exports of petroleum and other products to North Korea, Tillerson said that this would only work if Russia and China, the North’s main suppliers, cooperated.

Tillerson repeated his view that US relations with Russia were at an all time-low and still deteriorating. Ties have been strained by differences over Syria, Ukraine and allegations, denied by Moscow, of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

He said the administration was trying to find a way to re-establish a working relationship, notably on Syria.