The United States and key Asian allies are preparing to expand interceptions of ships suspected of violating sanctions on North Korea.
Officials say the plan could include deploying U.S. Coast Guard forces to stop and search vessels in Asia-Pacific waters.
They said Washington has been talking to regional partners, including Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore, about coordinating a stepped-up crackdown that would go further in an attempt to squeeze Pyongyang’s use of seagoing trade to feed its nuclear missile programme.
Pyongyang has warned that it would consider a blockade an act of war.
The officials said the US-led initiative, which has not been previously reported, shows Washington’s increasing urgency to force North Korea into negotiations over the abandonment of its weapons programmes.
They said North Korea may be only a few months away from completing development of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, in spite of existing international sanctions that, at times, have been sidestepped by smuggling and ship-to-ship transfers at sea of banned goods.
“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,” said a senior administration official told Reuters.
On Friday, Washington on Friday slammed sanctions on dozens more companies and vessels linked to North Korean shipping trade and urged the UN to blacklist a list of entities, a move it said was aimed at shutting down North Korea’s illicit maritime smuggling activities to obtain oil and sell coal.
Tighter sanctions plus a more assertive approach at sea could dial up tensions at a time when fragile diplomacy between North and South Korea has gained momentum.