UNITED NATIONS: China and Russia on Thursday (Sep 27) called for an easing of sanctions against North Korea, rejecting a US push at the UN Security Council for vigorous enforcement despite warming ties.
Led by the United States, the Security Council adopted three sanctions resolutions last year aimed at depriving North Korea of revenue for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a council meeting that the "positive developments" in relations between North and South Korea - combined with warmer US-North Korean ties - should lead to sanctions relief.
Wang said the council should consider "in due course" a provision to "modify the sanctions measures in light of the DPRK's compliance."
Russia backed China's call to consider a sanctions review.
Declaring that sanctions should not become a form of "collective punishment," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued that it was time to send a positive signal to Pyongyang to encourage concessions.
"Steps by the DPRK toward gradual disarmament should be followed by an easing of sanctions," said Lavrov.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened the meeting, held during the annual UN General Assembly session, by demanding strict enforcement of sanctions.
Pompeo - who will pay his fourth visit to Pyongyang next month - voiced hope for the "dawn of a new day" with Pyongyang, but credited sanctions with bringing North Korea to the table and said there should be no let-up in pressure.
"Enforcement of UN Security Council sanctions must continue vigorously and without fail until we realise final, fully verified denuclearisation," Pompeo said.
"The members of this Council must set the example on that effort, and we must all hold each other accountable."
Pompeo said sanctions have been repeatedly violated - including, this year already, its annual cap of importing 500,000 barrels of oil.
The United States has detected inter-ship transfers of refined petroleum, which are also banned, and has accused North Korea of illegally exporting coal to fund its weapons programme.
China is Pyongyang's top trading partner, while Russia has welcomed tens of thousands of North Korean laborers that human rights groups consider a vital source of hard currency, with the labourers often working in slave-like conditions.
SANCTIONS, TALKS 'EQUALLY IMPORTANT'
China, which has fast-deteriorating relations with US President Donald Trump yet has largely welcomed his outreach to North Korea, stressed the need for diplomacy.
"China firmly believes that pressure is not the end," Wang said. "Both implementing sanctions and promoting political settlement are equally important."
Lavrov said it was "inappropriate and untimely" for the United States and its partners to "impose a course of tightening sanctions" when North Korea has "taken important steps" toward denuclearisation.
"It seems it would be logical to strengthen this momentum," said Lavrov.
North Korean representatives attended the Security Council session, but they did not ask to address the meeting.
SECOND TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT?
On Wednesday, Pompeo met his North Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, and called the talks "very positive."
Trump has heaped praise on North Korea's Kim Jong Un, one of the world's most repressive leaders, and boasted that his diplomacy has prevented war.
But many analysts doubt that North Korea has shifted more than rhetorically after already refining its arsenal through six nuclear tests since 2006 and repeated rocket launches.
The United States is also hearing calls for step-by-step sanctions relief from ally South Korea, whose left-leaning president, Moon Jae-in, helped arrange Trump's diplomatic drive.
That view is not shared by Japan, which is calling for the complete and verified disarming of North Korea as a condition for lifting any sanctions.
Trump met Kim in June the first-ever summit between the two countries that never signed a peace treaty.
Trump is seeking a second summit in the near future, which Pompeo will seek to arrange while in Pyongyang.
Pompeo said that North Korea would enjoy a "much brighter future" if Kim fulfills promises to the United States to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programme.
"But the path to peace and a brighter future is only through diplomacy and denuclearisation," Pompeo said.