North Korea Unlikely to Get UN Punishment Until Next Year

North Korea Said Unlikely to Face UN Punishment Until Next Year
South Korean soldiers guard a post near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Paju, South Korea. China, North Korea’s main ally, insists that the Security Council should avoid measures that may escalate tensions. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

China is resisting U.S.-led pressure to expand United Nations sanctions on North Korea, and a fresh push will come in January when South Korea joins the Security Council, according to four UN diplomats.

North Korea’s rocket launch a week ago drew condemnation from the UN Security Council for violating its resolutions barring the country from conducting ballistic-missile and nuclear tests. Yet any punishment will have to wait while diplomats try to win China’s assent.

Western nations favor expanding the UN blacklist of individuals and entities subject to travel bans and asset freezes, according to the four diplomats who asked not to be named because talks are preliminary. China, as one of the council’s five veto-wielding powers, can block measures to punish its neighbor.

The Chinese have a track record of obstructionism, hindering the work of a UN panel of experts investigating North Korea’s nuclear program and most recently delaying the June release of the group’s findings, the diplomats said yesterday.

China, North Korea’s main ally, insists that the Security Council should avoid measures that may escalate tensions. The council’s response should be “measured” and geared at keeping the peace in the peninsula, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Dec. 14.

The U.S. said it seeks a “clear and meaningful” response -- a diplomatic reference to binding resolutions. North Korea’s most recent provocations, including a failed rocket test in April, so far have elicited little other than words of condemnation.

‘Vigorous’ Debate

Getting the Chinese on board will be an uphill struggle since they’ve taken the view that North Korea’s actions don’t threaten regional stability, the diplomats said.

Behind closed doors, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told her Chinese counterpart on Dec. 12 that his government’s stance was “ridiculous,” according to four diplomats in the room. When asked about the mood during that first round of discussions, Rice said that exchanges in the council “get vigorous.”

The last round of successful UN sanctions were passed unanimously in 2009 after about three weeks of negotiations. The council acted after North conducted a nuclear blast and tested missiles.

The Dec. 11 launch of a long-range rocket followed a failed rocket test in April that embarrassed new leader Kim Jong Un, who has been working to secure his hereditary position since his father’s death a year ago.

Six-Party Talks

North Korea has twice detonated an underground atomic explosion, and Kim has shown no readiness to respond to calls from the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to return to six-party talks aimed at getting the regime to abandon its nuclear program.

North Korea’s missile program is now on a par with what the U.S. and the Soviet Union achieved in the 1950s, according to David Maxwell, the associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. He said it’s unclear whether the regime is able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit it on a missile.

-- Editors: Terry Atlas, Michael Shepard

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