WASHINGTON – One week after North Korea’s announcement of a nuclear test, the United States has started taking steps against the reclusive state aimed at placing it under a state of international siege.

Washington will dispatch Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Japan, South Korea and China starting Tuesday, aiming to confirm the countries’ resolve to impose sanctions against North Korea and strengthen alliances against that country in order to maintain stability in Northeast Asia.

The United States also plans additional sanctions, following the adoption Saturday of a U.N. resolution to apply sanctions against North Korea.

A U.S. government source said Rice may visit Russia immediately after the visits to the other three countries, adding that she is considering a meeting of foreign ministers from five member nations of the six-party talks – Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States – during her trip.

Though it is uncertain whether the foreign ministers’ meeting can be realized, the series of steps taken by the United States clearly demonstrates Washington’s intention, even after the adoption of the U.N. resolution, to unite nations around it in an effort to resolve the latest crisis by taking advantage of international condemnation of Pyongyang.

Rice was especially interested in getting China, which has the strongest influence on North Korea, into the anti-Pyongyang alliance.

When Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan visited the United States as a special envoy of President Hu Jintao, the U.S. government gave rare top-honor treatment as not only Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, but also President Bush attended the meeting.

Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for Asia-Pacific affairs, said in a speech Friday that policy coordination with China over responses to North Korea’s nuclear test had gone smoothly.

He joked that history books in the future may say Kim Jong Il contributed to improving U.S.-China ties.

Another purpose of Rice’s trip is to reassure Japan and South Korea that the United States would offer security for them as a strategic ally.

If North Korea comes to possess both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, only Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would be left as nonnuclear powers in Northeast Asia. Washington worries that anxiety about security may increase in the countries and region.

Rice will tell Tokyo and Seoul that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is still effective and the two countries do not need to consider possessing nuclear weapons, according to Hill. Rice will also discuss strengthening missile defense with the two countries.

North Korea boasts of placing top priority on military affairs, and the size of its conventional forces is much larger than Japan’s and South Korea’s.

As the announcement of the nuclear test made North Korea a clear military threat, it will likely affect debates about the future of U.S. forces stationed in Japan and South Korea.

Since the Korean War broke out in the early 1950s, the United States has imposed strict economic sanctions on Pyongyang. After the nuclear test announcement, Washington made efforts to rally concerned countries for the adoption of the Security Council resolution and build an anti-Pyongyang alliance.

It is therefore likely the United States will impose its own additional sanctions. A strong backlash from North Korea is predicted, especially in response to forcible inspections on ships and stricter financial sanctions.

It is likely the U.S. Navy will take charge of the ship inspections, which have the potential risk of sparking a small-scale armed conflict.

The financial sanctions, which have already been imposed on Pyongyang-linked banks in Macau, have been so effective that North Korea cited it as the biggest reason for refusing to return to the six-nation talks.

If the financial sanctions are increased, it is highly possible North Korea’s overseas economic activities will effectively be paralyzed.

On Friday, Bush signed the North Korea Nonproliferation Act, a domestic law to strengthen sanctions against North Korea, soon after the U.N. resolution was adopted.

The act imposed punishments on individuals and companies that sell products related to nuclear weapons and missiles to North Korea.

Under the new act, the U.S. president can take tough measures, such as revoking companies’ export licenses issued by the U.S. government.

(c) 2006, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Visit the Daily Yomiuri Online at http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/index-e.htm/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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