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UN unanimously condemns North Korea rocket launch: why China joined in

China’s support for the US-sponsored Security Council measure sends a message to North Korea that any future missile launch or nuclear test will likely be met with harsher UN sanctions.

China’s support Tuesday afternoon for a US-sponsored Security Council resolution condemning North Korea for a December rocket launch suggests both Beijing’s desire to find common ground with Washington where possible – and its growing concerns over Pyongyang’s provocative acts.

The resolution, approved by all 15 UN Security Council members, tightens existing sanctions on North Korea by adding its space agency and a list of additional individuals, including the head of the North’s space agency, to existing measures.

Pyongyang claimed the December launch was aimed at putting a communications satellite in space, but the US, South Korea, and Japan said the three-stage rocket was really a testing of long-range missile technology that North Korea is banned from using under existing UN resolutions.

Diplomats at the UN say the significance of Tuesday’s resolution is primarily the signal it sends to Pyongyang about the willingness of its key supporter – Beijing – to join the US in condemning it. But China’s cooperation on the resolution is also seen as part of China’s push, under new leader Xi Jinping, to improve relations with South Korea.

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Chinese state-run media reported Tuesday that China’s vote reflected a desire to work “constructively” with Security Council partners. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the Chinese government was expressing “regret that [North Korea] went ahead with the launch amid widespread concerns by the international community,” according to China Daily.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, called Tuesday’s resolution a “firm, united, and appropriate response to North Korea’s reckless act.” She said the council’s unanimous vote “makes clear that if North Korea chooses again to defy the international community, such as by conducting another launch or a nuclear test, then the council will take significant action.”  Ambassador Rice said that the provisions of the resolution – which she described as “both new sanctions and the tightening and expanding of existing measures” – are significant because they “concretely help to impede the growth of North Korea’s WMD program and reduce the threat of proliferation by targeting entities and individuals directly involved in these programs.”

The US had originally wanted to hit North Korea with new sanctions over the launch. But UN diplomats say the US eventually decided that getting Beijing to go along with a milder resolution, yet one that still condemned Pyongyang, was still a good deal.

Chinese diplomats said they wanted the resolution to be “moderate” and “prudent” while still being strong enough to discourage the North from any further actions that might destabilize the region.

Some Asia analysts say that by supporting the resolution, China is not just signaling Washington about its desire for more cooperation. They say the Chinese government also has its sights set on South Korea, which, unlike the  basket-case North, is a regional economic engine.

Beijing recently dispatched diplomats to meet with South Korea’s president-elect, Park Guen-hye, and Ms. Park reciprocated by sending a delegation to China for a four-day visit that began Monday.