In an unusual pre-dawn statement, Obama called the nuclear test, Pyongyang’s third, a “highly provocative act” that undermines stability in Asia and fails to strengthen North Korea’s own security. Later, in his State of the Union address, he warned North Korean officials that the test “will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”
Short of the threat of military action, however, the United States and the U.N. Security Council have little leverage over North Korea. Stringent economic sanctions have not halted the North’s nuclear development or alleged proliferation.
The North’s military-backed dictatorship, heavily armed and diplomatically and economically isolated from all but its patron and neighbor China, and its leader, Kim Jong Eun, have rebuffed all recent U.S. efforts to negotiate over its nuclear program.
After a hastily convened emergency session Tuesday, the Security Council branded the nuclear detonation a “grave threat” to world peace and pledged to immediately seek additional binding sanctions against Pyongyang. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, also denounced North Korea as the only country to carry out a nuclear test in the 21st century.
All eyes on China
The statement by the 15-nation council set the stage for another high-level U.S.-led effort to persuade veto-holding China to support tougher sanctions.
Western governments were hopeful that Pyongyang’s open defiance of its powerful benefactor in Beijing would lead China to approve fresh penalties. But China is not expected to cut off the lifeline of money, energy assistance and political support that keeps North Korea afloat. Chinese authorities are worried about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but they are more worried about a tide of refugees and a security vacuum on its borders if the North implodes.
China issued a statement reiterating its call that North Korea not take “any further actions that would worsen the situation” and cautioning Western powers not to overreact.
The nuclear test comes about two months after the North launched a satellite into space in violation of U.N. resolutions and just weeks after the Security Council adopted a resolution expanding the list of North Korean individuals and companies subject to U.N. sanctions.