The U.N. Security Council approved new sanctions on Thursday against North Korea for its underground nuclear test last month, in a unanimous vote that came just hours after North Korea threatened for the first time to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States and South Korea.
The North Korean leadership, which had warned the Security Council not to approve the sanctions, said it was responding to threats already made against it, citing the U.S.-South Korean military exercises currently under way as evidence the allies were preparing for “a nuclear war aimed to mount a pre-emptive strike” on North Korea.
The tougher sanctions impose penalties on North Korean banking, travel and trade and were passed in a 15-0 vote that reflected the country’s increased international isolation.
China, the North’s longtime benefactor, helped the U.S. draft the sanctions resolution in what outside experts called a sign of Beijing’s growing annoyance with Pyongyang’s defiant behavior on the nuclear issue. The Chinese had entreated the North Koreans not to proceed with the Feb. 12 underground nuclear test, their third.
Both China and the U.S. presented the new constraints as adding significant pressure on North Korea.
“The strength, breadth and severity of these sanctions will raise the cost to North Korea of its illicit nuclear program and further constrain its ability to finance and source materials and technology for its ballistic missile, conventional and nuclear weapons programs,” the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, told reporters after the vote.
Li Baodong, the ambassador from China, which angered the North Korean government by supporting the sanctions, told reporters that his country was “committed to safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula” and that the resolution also stressed the need for resumed talks.
U.S. experts on North Korea said the shriller invective was a characteristic response that should not be taken literally, but they did not dismiss it outright.
“I don’t believe they will carry through on these threats,” said Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and presidential candidate who has been a U.S. emissary to North Korea, having traveled there eight times, most recently in January.
“It does mean a longer or sustained period of estrangement and negativity and lack of a diplomatic dialogue,” Richardson said. “I think to show their defiance, they may take some military steps, undefined military steps. I don’t know what they’ll do.”