GENEVA The United States is concerned about North Korea's investment in nuclear weapons, but there are signs that fresh U.N. sanctions are starting to hurt Pyongyang, the U.S. envoy for human rights in North Korea told Reuters on Monday.
Ambassador Robert King called for resuming six-party talks on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) that would be aimed at denuclearisation, but conceded that in the current climate of regional tensions, that would be "pretty hard".
"The concern clearly is the North Koreans have money that they are putting into military resources and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and we're anxious to make sure their ability in those areas is limited," King said in an interview.
The U.N. Security Council unanimously agreed new U.N. sanctions this month to starve Pyongyang of money for its nuclear weapons programme, in a resolution drafted by the United States and Pyongyang's ally China.
North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea last Thursday in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, as South Korean and U.S. forces conducted massive war games. They followed its latest nuclear test in January and a rocket launch in February that Washington and its allies said used banned ballistic missile technology.
"There are some indications that suggest that the sanctions are creating some difficult conditions for imports," King said.
"There are already indications that companies and banks and so forth that deal with North Korea are being much more cautious even though the sanctions haven't fully been implemented," he said. "My guess is they've already start to bite, they will continue to bite, or become tougher as they are implemented."
All cargo going to and from North Korea, which has a population around 24 million, must now be inspected, whereas previously states only had to inspect such shipments if they had reasonable grounds to believe they contained illicit goods.
The U.S. Treasury Department and White House are still finalising work on the new sanctions, King said. "There is an Executive Order being drafted right now that will deal with these additional sanctions".
King was speaking after addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council, where U.N. investigator Marzuki Darusman called for leader Kim Jong Un and senior officials to be prosecuted for committing crimes against humanity
The United States is working with Japan and the European Union on a resolution to set up a "mechanism of accountability" aimed at holding North Korea's leadership liable for abuses, King said.
"But I think we need to be careful not to start at the top . Because if you start at the top, that's where you stop."
"One of the things that we need to do on accountability is to make sure and to make clear to the North Koreans as well that people at all levels are going to be considered," he added.
There was "serious drought" last year North Korea, which can feed its population "at a very minimal level" in the best of times, King said.
"The toughest time in North Korea is the time we're in right now. This is the time when rice supplies from last fall and the harvest from last fall is pretty well running out," he said.
"And it's still too early to be growing crops that will be able to be used this year. It's the lean period."
(The story was refiled to correct the typo in the headline to U.S. envoy, not U.N. envoy)
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)