UN Security Council poised to punish North Korea

Economic sanctions are designed to send a strong message without prompting a belligerent backlash.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (r.) visits a collective farm in Hamju county, North Korea, in this undated photo released by the North's KCNA news agency on June 7, 2009.

With China and Russia saying Wednesday they are on board, the United Nations Security Council is poised to adopt punishing economic sanctions against North Korea for its recent nuclear explosion and missile launches.

The new resolution, the result of two weeks of diplomatic haggling among the countries most affected by North Korea's stepped-up belligerence, is not as strong as the measures the United States originally sought.

But key components including a ban on the North's lucrative arms sales and a measure urging countries to inspect North Korean transport vessels suspected of transporting banned products – like parts for missiles or nuclear materials – led US officials to express satisfaction with the outcome.

"This sanction regime, if passed by the Security Council, will bite, and bite in a meaningful way," said US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice Wednesday morning following a meeting where the draft was circulated among the council's 15 member states. Council members will seek guidance from home capitals on a resolution vote that could come as early as Friday, one UN official said.

Adoption of the resolution does not appear to be in doubt, since all five permanent and veto-wielding members of the council expressed support.

Most significantly, China – North Korea's closest ally on the council – called for a "yes" vote, and Russia came around after language it considered too strong in the original draft was modified. But unanimity may still prove elusive, since rotating members Libya and Vietnam are thought to have reservations.

The most controversial measures appear to be the provision urging inspections of North Korean cargo and the outright ban on arms sales.

The original draft, authored by the US, called for requiring countries to inspect air and sea shipments suspected of containing banned materials. But Russian misgivings in particular led to a "watering down" of the measure urging inspections, said a UN official with knowledge of the resolution debate but not authorized to comment publicly on council affairs.

Among other measures, the resolution freezes the assets of additional North Korean companies and seeks to cut off financial assistance to the country "except for humanitarian and development purposes directly addressing the needs of the civilian population." The draft resolution also calls for countries to deny refueling any ships suspected of carrying banned cargo.

Diplomats will now be watching for how North Korea responds, with the US keeping one eye on any developments in the case of two American journalists convicted in a North Korean court earlier this week of "grave crimes" against the North Korean state and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.

Pyongyang had said after its second nuclear test, in late May, that it would consider any new sanctions against it an "act of war." The underground nuclear blast was followed by missile launches.

Russian military officials said Wednesday they are anticipating another missile launch in coming days, according to an Interfax news agency report.

Despite the toughened sanctions, the new resolution is not likely to alter the course of the confrontation between North Korea and the international community, some experts in Northeast Asia say.

That's especially true, they add, because Pyongyang is in the midst of an internal political transition that is putting everything else in "also-ran" status as far as the regime is concerned

"They've already stated earlier this week that they would respond to the slightest insult by carrying out an attack in the defense of North Korean dignity," says Jim Walsh, a North Korea expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "That's highly unlikely. But they will come out with a loud condemnation of the resolution, and then I have no doubt they'll proceed to a missile launch sometime in the next two weeks that will add a 'So there!'"

No one should expect North Korea to alter its behavior because of external pressures when the regime is preoccupied with domestic concerns. "They have their internal reasons for acting the way they are, and they are going to continue to do it until the transition is completed," he says.

Especially given that situation, Mr. Walsh says he considers it was "wise" of the Security Council to back off mandatory inspections of the North's vessels.

"The last thing we want is to push a weak and paranoid country into a position that is likely to generate a crisis," he says. "You start forcing your way onto ships and somebody is going to get shot, and countries feel compelled to respond. And then it can deteriorate beyond what anyone anticipated."

Aware of concerns that any aggressive stance towards North Korea could lead to unintended consequences, UN Ambassador Rice said the resolution was "crafted in a wise and balanced way to minimize the risk of unintended conflict, and yet to insure that there is a credible interdiction regime."

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