Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, talks with reporters… (Andrew Gombert / European…)
WASHINGTON -- The U.N. Security Council moved Tuesday toward approval of new sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear test last month, drawing a furious reaction from Pyongyang.
The proposed sanctions, introduced by the United States with the support of China, would target North Korea’s ties to foreign banks and what Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, described as the illicit activities of North Korean diplomats.
The isolated Stalinist state is already facing three sets of U.N. sanctions for its past nuclear and missile tests, along with other activities. But Rice told reporters that the new resolution, expected to be approved Thursday, would take the sanctions “to the next level, breaking new ground and imposing significant new legal obligations.”
North Korea responded by threatening to disconnect the “hotline” to U.S. forces in South Korea, tear up its armistice agreement with South Korea and strike the United States with “lighter and smaller nukes.” U.S. officials and analysts largely discounted the threats as bluster, noting that North Korea has made such statements before.
The support of China, which supplies North Korea with most of its food and energy, was key. Beijing accepted most of what the United States wanted, but insisted that the sanctions be focused on Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear activities and leave North Korea’s legal trade untouched.
Li Baodong, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that “a strong signal must be sent that a nuclear test is against the will of the international community,” according to Reuters.
Bonnie Glaser, Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she believed China was trying to thread a needle between a punitive response to the Feb. 12 nuclear test and any action that threatens to ratchet regional tensions too high.
Based on her understanding of the proposed resolution, she said, the move would result in “a tightening of existing sanctions but will not represent a fundamental departure from the kinds of steps taken in the past.”
The proposal presses governments to be more vigilant in keeping tabs on illegal activities by North Korean diplomats and in searching ships suspected of carrying illegal cargo. It blacklists two North Korean companies involved in the nuclear and missile trade, as well as three suspected North Korean arms traffickers.
Many analysts have been dubious that China would ever accept sanctions strong enough to put real pressure on the North. Although Beijing is angry with the government of Kim Jong Un over the nuclear and missile tests, it fears that a collapse of his regime could put a united, U.S.-backed Korea on its doorstep.
North Korea argued in a statement released on state media that military drills staged by the U.S. and South Korea “are a vivid expression of their systematic violation” of the armistice agreement with the South, and so Pyongyang would invalidate the deal.
“What they’re saying is, ‘We’re still at war, let us remind you,’ " said Jae H. Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “There is no avenue toward a peace treaty if there is no armistice.”
Though the harsh words from North Korea were ostensibly a reaction to the ongoing military drills, “they’ve never jumped so high about them before.... The sanctions seem to be the trigger,” said Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council.
Sigal added that, even though the angry talk is not unprecedented, warring rhetoric in the Koreas runs the risk of escalating into real clashes, especially if the North cuts off the hotline.
“Hotlines are ideally used to say, ‘We didn’t mean that,’ or ‘That was an accident,’ and that’s important when you have a tense moment,” Sigal said. “It’s pulling the plug on a way to avoid a clash.”
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Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.