The United Nations Security Council “strongly condemned” North Korea’s nuclear test carried out earlier Tuesday and committed to responding swiftly to the North’s “clear threat to international peace and security” with a new round of sanctions targeting the isolated regime’s nuclear and missile programs.
Pyongyang’s third and apparently most powerful nuclear test may have been designed in part to convince the domestic North Korean audience of the young leader Kim Jong-un’s hold on power. But it also succeeded in further uniting the international community – notably including China – in opposition to the North’s actions.
Noting that already in January the council had committed to “significant action” if the North proceeded with another nuclear test, Ambassador Rice said the North’s “highly provocative” action meant that, “indeed, we will do so.”
The North’s underground test, its third nuclear explosion in six years, set off the first international crisis of President Obama’s second term and served as a stark reminder that North Korea – and the nuclear proliferation risks and regional destabilization it threatens – is not going to fall far from the top of the president’s international priority list.
As usual, Pyongyang had two audiences in mind, regional analysts say, as it proceeded with a test that it had been warned by world powers – including the US and China – not to carry out: the regime’s domestic audience, and the international community, headed by the US.
Mr. Kim, in power for just a year, is still establishing his credentials with the country’s military leaders, experts say, and is also letting the North Korean population know that he is a strong leader in the tradition of his father and grandfather.
But others say the timing heightens other risks for the North.
That the test was carried out while South Korea holds the month-long revolving presidency of the UN Security Council virtually guaranteed a swift international response. South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan told reporters in New York after the council meeting that, while the North may have chosen to act while South Korea presides over the Security Council, the council’s “strong condemnation” of the test was a message to the North that a united international community would “hold it responsible” for its “provocative act.”
In addition, China is likely to consider it an affront that Pyongyang carried out the test during its New Year holiday, says Victor Cha, who holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “In the world of diplomacy, little things do matter, and conducting the test during the Chinese New Year will be viewed by Beijing as extremely insulting,” he says in a post on the CSIS website.
On Tuesday Beijing summoned the North Korean ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to protest, and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi announced that China was “strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed” to the nuclear test and urged the North to cease its destabilizing actions and to return to “dialogue” with the international community.
At the UN, Rice said the US was awaiting further information on the “technical specifications” of Tuesday’s blast. But nuclear experts said it may have been the North’s first test of a uranium-fueled (rather than plutonium) device – a development that would have worrisome implications for the North’s potential as a security threat and as a proliferator of nuclear weapons.
Calling such a development a “game-changer,” former UN nuclear adviser and now Notre Dame University Professor George Lopez says a uranium explosion would suggest the North’s ability to both “produce and export” a uranium-fueled device – a development that would pose urgent new questions about North Korea’s cooperation with Iran in its nuclear program.
A uranium-fueled device would pose additional concerns because uranium enrichment can be carried out in a smaller space than is required by plutonium and thus is more easily hidden, nuclear experts say.
China will be deeply concerned about these developments on its border, Professor Lopez notes, but he adds that Beijing will continue to discourage any blunt economic reprisals that could destabilize the regime in Pyongyang and thus destabilize the region.
As a result, Lopez says he anticipates the Security Council coming up with a resolution whose measures focus on limiting both the North’s access to the materials and parts it needs to continue developing its nuclear program – and its ability to export its technology to others.