North Koreans attend a rally in Pyongyang this week in support of the government.… (Jon Chol Jin, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The United Nations Security Council approved new sanctions on North Korea for its Feb. 12 nuclear test, ignoring Pyongyang's first-ever threat to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States and South Korea.
By a 15-0 vote Thursday, the council approved sanctions on North Korean banking, travel by senior officials and the trade the country conducts in banned nuclear and missile technologies. It was the fourth round of sanctions approved by the body.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, predicted the sanctions "will bite, and bite hard."
The key to their effectiveness, analysts said, is whether China, North Korea's longtime protector and source of food and energy, clamps down hard to halt the flow of banned equipment and to prevent the illicit financial transactions that support the nuclear and missile programs.
China has shown increasing frustration with its defiant neighbor and accepted most of what the United States sought in a three-week negotiation over the proposed resolution, diplomats said. Yet China wants to send the impoverished regime a signal without risking its collapse, which China fears could send waves of refugees across its border and potentially put a unified U.S.-backed Korea on its doorstep.
Chinese enforcement of previous sanctions has been spotty.
Li Baodong, China's ambassador to the United Nations, described the resolution to reporters as a "very important step" that reflected "the determination of the international community."
The sanctions give other countries new authority to inspect North Korean cargo, and expand a list of goods that the regime in Pyongyang is prohibited from importing. They further limit North Korea's dealings with foreign banks and impose new rules on the conduct of North Korean diplomats.
Diplomats said the punishments pose a new challenge for North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un. But they didn't predict that the sanctions would be more effective than their predecessors in halting the Stalinist regime's weapons programs.
As the hour of the vote approached, North Korea stepped up its angry rhetoric. It declared that because the United States and South Korea were conducting military exercises, which it viewed as the prelude to a nuclear attack on the North, Pyongyang would "exercise the right to a preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors and to defend the supreme interests of the country," according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
The agency said Pyongyang was no longer observing the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean war, and was free to attack its enemies at any time.
U.S. and South Korean officials have largely discounted North Korea's language about nuclear weapons, which they believe is aimed in large part at strengthening loyalty for Kim. They doubt that the North will ignite a nuclear war that would lead to its obliteration, but they fear that it could launch a smaller-scale conventional attack at its border with South Korea, as it has done repeatedly.
The State Department, while describing North Korea's rhetoric as "not new," sought to reassure the public.
"The United States is fully capable of defending against a [North Korean] ballistic missile attack," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. She said the United States continues to upgrade its missile defenses and is "firmly committed" to the defense of Japan and South Korea.