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U.S. says it may interdict Korean ships

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is prepared to halt North Korean ships on the high seas to carry out the newest U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang’s arms trade, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. said Friday.

Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States will intensify its scrutiny of North Korea’s trade in banned weapons, and if U.S. commanders suspect a ship is carrying them, “we are prepared to confront that vessel.”

Rice’s comments to reporters at the White House came soon after the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously for new sanctions against North Korea to register its displeasure at the country’s recent nuclear and missile tests.

Rice said the U.S. Navy won’t forcibly board such ships but will direct them to a nearby port for inspection. North Korea has said that it will regard such interdictions as an act of war.

The U.N. sanctions aim at halting most of North Korea’s lucrative arms business. The new measures also authorize tough financial sanctions that could sharply reduce the country’s revenues from abroad, and call for a halt to financial aid from overseas.

It remains to be seen, however, how vigorously North Korea’s key trading partners, including China, will enforce the sanctions, diplomats acknowledged.

Both Russia and China, North Korea’s traditional protectors, joined in the vote. China’s envoy to the United Nations, Zhang Yesui, said the resolution showed the “firm opposition” of the international community to North Korea’s recent defiant actions.

At the same time, China has opposed a requirement for U.N. members to search North Korean vessels, and the envoy urged nations to use caution in interdictions.

Rice said the new sanctions were “unprecedented” and acknowledged that North Korea may react strongly to them.

The sanctions encourage, but do not require, U.N. member countries to interdict suspicious North Korean ships. If the ships refuse permission to be boarded, they are to be directed to a nearby port for inspection. If they refuse that advice, they are to be denied port services, including refueling. Some analysts say that North Korea’s trade will be hurt if U.N. members begin refusing the vessels.

The U.N.’s action came amid speculation that North Korea may be preparing for another nuclear test, which would be its third.