UN Weighs New North Korea Sanctions After Nuclear Test

The United Nations Security Council condemned North Korea’s test of a nuclear device, paving the way for negotiations with China to punish the totalitarian regime with additional sanctions.

The Security Council met in emergency session for an hour this morning in New York to discuss measures after North Korea’s third nuclear test earlier today. The support of China, North Korea’s closest ally and a council member wielding a veto, is needed for a fresh round of sanctions. That will require delicate consultations.

In the meantime, the UN’s decision-making body delivered a unanimous rebuke of the North Korea’s actions read out by South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan, who had traveled to New York. Specific measures are still to come, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said.

Talks will begin to “not only tighten existing measures but aim to augment the sanctions regime that is already quite strong,” Rice told reporters after the meeting. Banks and financial services are “areas that we think are right for appropriate further action.”

Early signs point to China being on board. North Korea’s ambassador in Beijing was summoned and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made a “solemn representation” to him over the test, according to a statement posted online.

“The Chinese still facilitate trade through finances of lesser institutions,” said George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator on North Korea.

Target Banks

The Security Council can “do what they have done on Iran - - threaten secondary sanctions on banks in the region doing business” with already blacklisted institutions such as Bank of East Land, he said.

The underground test “of a smaller and light A-bomb” today was successful, the official Korean Central News Agency said in a statement. South Korea measured an artificial 4.9 magnitude earthquake at the North’s Punggye-ri testing site at 11:57 a.m. local time, and its Defense Ministry estimated the yield at 6 to 7 kilotons, bigger than the previous two tests. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of about 15 kilotons.

Obama Call

President Barack Obama talked with South Korea’s President Lee Myung Bak about a coordinated response to the North Korean test. Obama vowed to work with its allies and the UN “to seek a range of measures aimed at impeding North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” the White House said in a statement.

A detonation three weeks after the UN tightened its sanctions on North Korea indicates Kim Jong Un backs the military-first policy of his late father as he cements his hold on the country he took charge of 14 months ago.

The incident comes amid political transitions in Asia and the U.S., posing a challenge to policy makers from President-elect Park Geun Hye in South Korea to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“This nuclear test was our preliminary measure, for which we exercised our most restraint,” an unidentified spokesman of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. “If the U.S. continues to be hostile until the end and complicates affairs, we cannot but consecutively take high-level secondary and third measures.”

“Enemy forces’ mention of ship searches and maritime blockades will soon be received as an act of war and will trigger our merciless retaliation,” KCNA said.

Diplomacy’s Failure

Leonid Petrov, a North Korea analyst and associate researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, said the test “shows the failure of diplomacy.”

“North Korea is trying to intimidate its neighbors and the neighbors are trying to push for more deterrents, and an escalation of tensions is inevitable,” he said.

For China, the test underscores the limited influence that it has on North Korea’s policies. China is forecast next month to anoint Xi Jinping as its new president after he took over the Communist Party in November.

Chinese Opposition

China expressed “firm opposition” to the test and called on all parties to respond calmly, according to a statement on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

Obama called the test a threat to regional stability that warranted “swift and credible action” from the international community.

“North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs constitute a threat to U.S. national security and to international peace and security,” Obama said in a statement from Washington, adding that his administration will “continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies.”

North Korea previously conducted two tests at its site in North Hamgyong Province, both with plutonium devices. The first in October 2006 yielded less than one kiloton and the second in May 2009 between five and six kilotons, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said in a televised briefing. He said it will be difficult to determine what fissile material -- plutonium or highly-enriched uranium -- the North used.

Warhead Development

“The point is whether the North has successfully miniaturized and lightened the warhead,” said Jeung Young Tae, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “The threat is in whether North Korea can deliver a nuclear warhead, regardless of how powerful it is.”

North Korea has enough plutonium to produce six to 18 nuclear weapons, according to the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

South Korea’s currency and benchmark Kospi index of shares initially dipped after the news of an artificial earthquake being detected in the north. The won gained 0.5 percent to 1090.69 per dollar and the Kospi closed 0.3 percent lower at 1,945.79 in Seoul. The MSCI Asia Pacific Index retained its gains, with markets including Hong Kong and Singapore off for lunar new year celebrations.

The South’s military will accelerate expansion of its capabilities by deploying its extended-range missiles at an early stage, chief national security adviser Chun Yung Woo said in a live television briefing. It also remains on alert for the possibility of additional provocations, Chun said.

Park, who takes office Feb. 25, strongly condemned the test, vowing that her new government will not allow a nuclear-armed North Korea, her spokeswoman Cho Yoon Sun said.

Long-Range Rocket

Today’s atomic detonation comes exactly two months after the North successfully test-fired a long-range rocket. South Korea’s military estimates the missile’s range to be more than 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles).

In April 2009, North Korea said it would restore its main nuclear reactor for making weapons-grade plutonium at Yongbyon, about 90 kilometers north of the capital Pyongyang. The regime denied having a separate uranium-enrichment program until September 2009, when it told the UN Security Council it was “weaponizing” plutonium and had almost succeeded in highly enriching uranium.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today that the latest nuclear test “is a clear and grave violation” of past Security Council resolutions. Ban said it is “absolutely essential” that the Security Council now “act and speak with one voice.”

“The authorities in Pyongyang should not be under any illusion that nuclear weapons will enhance their security,” he said in a statement. “To the contrary, as Pyongyang pursues nuclear weapons, it will suffer only greater insecurity and isolation.”

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