North Korea threatens to nuke D.C.: why it's especially angry this time

The UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday that's based on a draft text negotiated by the US and China – North Korea’s closest ally. This suggests Beijing may be ready to try to slow its neighbor.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
United Nations Security Council members vote for tough new sanctions against North Korea for its latest nuclear test, during a meeting at UN headquarters Thursday. The unanimous vote by the UN's most powerful body sparked a furious Pyongyang to threaten a nuclear strike against the US.

North Korea ratcheted up its violent and threatening rhetoric as the United Nations Security Council on Thursday approved a resolution of wide-ranging sanctions targeting the country’s nuclear program and proliferation activities.

Pyongyang has a habit of responding to punitive action with vituperative language. But its particularly graphic talk this time – it vowed to incinerate Washington with a nuclear attack – could have been prompted by two things, North Korea analysts say.

First, the new resolution, passed unanimously by the 15-member Council following North Korea’s third nuclear test on Feb. 12, is based on a draft text negotiated by the United States and China – North Korea’s closest ally. This suggests Beijing is alarmed by the North’s nuclear activities and is ready to try to slow them.

Second, the resolution, if enforced by UN member states (including China), affects such a panoply of North Korea’s funding sources and capabilities that it could curtail the country’s future ability to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

“This resolution – if enforced – will degrade their future capacity” to continue and advance their nuclear program and illicit proliferation activities, says George Lopez, a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Thursday’s resolution offers signs of China’s shift on Pyongyang, says Dr. Lopez, who has served on the UN panel of experts for monitoring sanctions against North Korea.

For example, this resolution “parallels to some extent [an earlier] resolution going after the role of Iranian banks in [Tehran’s] nuclear development,” he says. In the past, “China didn’t want to extend that kind of financial sanction to North Korea, but now they do,” he adds. “That’s going to chill North Korea’s ability to purchase the parts it needs,” he says.

In the past, a resolution that could deepen the North’s economic hardship was an issue prompting deep reservations from Beijing. The fact that China has now worked with the US to arrive at such a resolution suggests China is getting nervous about the security climate in Northeast Asia and is more open to arguments for action.

“It’s my hunch,” Lopez says, “that the US was able to convince China by saying, ‘Look, if you think you have a problem conveying messages to North Korea about what it should and shouldn’t do, we can tell you we’re going to have a problem telling the two new governments in Tokyo and Seoul to be restrained.’ ” Japan and South Korea – both US allies – have new governments that are sounding less accommodating and more confrontational than their predecessors toward both North Korea and China.

The US mission to the UN applauded the Security Council shortly after it took unanimous action. The new sanctions, it said in a statement, “will significantly impede North Korea’s ability to develop further its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as its proliferation activities.”

North Korea is known to be a source of parts for Iran’s nuclear and missile programs – such sales being a crucial source of cash for the destitute country. In the past, the US informed China of suspected shipments of missile parts to Iran but apparently failed to get action.

Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia specialist at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, says that cables aired by WikiLeaks revealed that “on at least 19 occasions, the Bush administration asked China to impede missile parts being shipped from North Korea to Iran, and China refused.”

One question now will be whether China, having in effect co-written a tough new resolution, will abide by its own words.

The resolution goes further than any of the previous five resolutions on North Korea in blocking financial transactions used to support the targeted activities. It strengthens countries’ authority to inspect suspicious cargo leaving or headed for the North, limits the country’s access to the luxury goods coveted by its elites, and cracks down on transfers of cash. Suitcases of cash carried by North Korean diplomats have become a preferred method of conducting business transactions, US officials say.

Despite all this, Lopez of Notre Dame says the world should not be surprised if a furious North responds to the latest diplomatic action by proceeding to yet another nuclear test – and more missile launches.

In that sense, he says, the sanctions approved Thursday came “a little too late.” If enforced, the sanctions could limit the North’s future capabilities, he says. But lack of meaningful action in the past, he adds, allowed Pyongyang to accumulate the nuclear materials and missile parts it needs to continue antagonizing the world with provocative actions for some time to come.

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