North Korea Sanctions Evaders May Face High Seas Crackdown: Report

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FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, file photo, North Korea's Mangyongbong-92, right, carrying North Korea's members of art troupe is escorted as it approaches to Mukho Port in Donghae, South Korea. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File) -- The Associated Press

Ships carrying illicit cargo to North Korea can expect rough seas ahead due to a planned crackdown on sanctions violators initiated by the U.S. and its regional allies -- a move that potentially enhances tensions with the volatile Hermit Kingdom.

The Trump administration and allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore have been discussing an expanded crackdown that would snuff out illegal product shipments aiding North Korea's nuclear missile program, several senior U.S. officials told Reuters.

Despite existing international sanctions, North Korea is thought to be only a few months away from completing the development of nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the U.S. mainland. The rogue country has been able so far to thwart sanctions, receiving products from Russian and Chinese vessels out at sea on several occasions in the past year.

The clampdown could be seen as a new way to force North Korea into negotiations to abandon its nuclear and missile programs.

"There is no doubt we all have to do more, short of direct military action, to show [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un we mean business," a senior administration official told Reuters.

The campaign at sea could target ships in international waters or in territorial waters of cooperating countries, according to Reuters. It would be an expansion of existing operations, but still not a complete naval blockade on North Korea. Leaders of the rogue regime have previously said such action would be considered an act of war.

Officials told Reuters they are currently working to develop rules of engagement to avoid armed confrontations at sea, and are also citing the last U.N. Security Council resolution on North Korea, which they claim opened the door to stepped-up seizures.

Any risk of further escalating the conflict could be minimized if Coast Guard cutters -- which carry less firepower and technically engage in law-enforcement missions -- are used in certain cases, rather than warships, officials told Reuters.

Among other directives, the Coast Guard's mission includes preventing illegal foreign fishing vessels from encroaching on the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends no more than 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Coast Guard also serves in defense missions, and "by statute, the Coast Guard is an armed force operating in the joint arena at any time and functioning as a specialized service under the Navy in time of war or when directed by the President," according to its website

The Coast Guard declined to address whether it might deploy ships to the region, but said in a statement to Reuters that "future ship deployments would depend on U.S. foreign policy objectives and the operational availability of our assets." 

The reported crackdown comes after President Trump announced Friday what he called the "heaviest"-ever set of sanctions on North Korea. The new prohibitions target the regime's shipping and trading companies.

The administration also put out an advisory warning of sanctions risks for those who enable the shipment of goods to and from North Korea. 

"Treasury is aggressively targeting all illicit avenues used by North Korea to evade sanctions, including taking decisive action to block the vessels, shipping companies, and entities across the globe that work on North Korea's behalf," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Fox News' Serafin Gómez and Judson Berger and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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