U.N. Security Council Fails to Agree on N. Korea Statement

By Colum Lynch and Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 5, 2009 8:16 PM

UNITED NATIONS, April 5 -- The U.N. Security Council meeting in an emergency session failed Sunday to reach agreement on a statement criticizing North Korea's rocket launch, as China and Russia said they were not convinced that Pyongyang had violated any U.N. rules by trying to send a satellite into orbit.

The 15-nation council agreed to continue negotiations on a formal resolution addressing Pyongyang's action. But China and Russia's tough stance dealt a setback to efforts the United States, Japan and their allies to push for penalties against North Korea. "Every state has the right to the peaceful use of outer space," said Russia's deputy U.N. envoy Igor N. Shcherbak.

The satellite launch poses a critical test of President Obama's leadership on a major foreign policy crisis, and of his ability to persuade China and Russia to impose greater pressure on North Korea. Hours before the council met, Obama had insisted that North Korea face consequences for flagrantly violating the 2006 U.N. Resolution 1718, which bans North Korean ballistic missile tests.

"Rules must be binding, violations must be punished. Words must mean something," Obama said. "The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons."

After three hours of closed door talks, the council president issued a mild, non-binding statement noting that it had met to address "serious situation" in the Korean Peninsula and to "listen to the concerns arising from the launch." The council, he added, will continue talks on "the appropriate reaction."

China's U.N. envoy, Zhang Yesui, blocked agreement on language simply expressing concern over the launch.

The council's mute response stood in contrast to the condemnations from Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and other Western capitals. Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that most of the council members made strong statements of concern over Pyongyang's action and "it is our view this action merits a clear and strong response."

But U.N.-based envoys were already downplaying expectations that Pyongyang will face tough new sanctions. Council diplomats conceded that they may have to settle for enforcing punitive measures that the council agreed to place on North Korea two years ago -- including a travel ban and an asset freeze on individuals linked to its ballistic missile program -- but never imposed.

China and Russia, meanwhile, called for restraint in statements that appear directed as much at the United States and Japan as North Korea. The Security Council's reaction "has to be cautious and proportionate," China's U.N. ambassador Zhang Yesui told reporters.

Although the launch generated anger from Japan and South Korea, actual policy changes were limited. Japan said it would extend previous economic sanctions against the North for a year, rather than the usual six-month extension.

South Korea said the launch would have no substantial effect on its economic programs inside North Korea. But Seoul said it would seriously consider joining the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led effort to intercept ships from countries like North Korea that might be carrying nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. The North has threatened to interpret any move by the South to join the group as a "declaration of war."

In Washington, congressional Democrats, including Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republicans denounced the launch as a violation of two Security Council resolutions.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the launch "alarming" in a statement and urged the Security Council to take "strong and concerted action to demonstrate that Pyongyang's actions are unacceptable."

Some analysts said that Obama must respond sharply to the North Korean rocket launch. "Diplomacy with North Korea only works when they face consequences or pressure," said Michael Green, who was George W. Bush's senior adviser for Asia. "It's pretty clear to the Obama administration that they're going to have to lay down the line here. Otherwise they're going to have continuous problems and challenges from North Korea."

Green, who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, acknowledged that the challenge of mustering a tough response has only grown since 2006, when China backed sanctions. "The Chinese have less appetite today for putting pressure on North Korea. It may be because of the financial crisis, and so the Chinese are worried about their own stability, or it could be they think we have less leverage. But that signals a real problem for the administration," he said.

Jack Pritchard, who was special envoy to North Korea in the first term of President George W. Bush, said it was important the new administration remained focused on restarting six-party talks aimed ending North Korea's nuclear program. It's not time to "return to the Bush I term, [the idea] that engagement is a reward," he said. "That is not the dynamic we need to see," said Pritchard, who is now president of the Korea Economic Institute.

Although Sunday's launch apparently failed to put a satellite into orbit, North Korea showed significant progress in rocket engineering, as compared to the failed test in 2006 of a similar kind of missile, analysts said.

But North Korea remains years away from building an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States mainland with a nuclear warhead, they said.

To have that capability, North Korea would have to build a missile that can carry a 2,200-pound payload up to 6,200 miles, said Theodore Postol, an expert on missile systems and a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"North Korea will also have to develop advanced, compact and light-weight nuclear warheads," he said. "This combination of prodigious achievements is still many years away."

About four hours after the launch, North Korea said that it had succeeded in putting a communications satellite into orbit and that it was transmitting patriot music, including a celebratory tune about North Korea's leader, titled "Song of General Kim Jong Il."

The United States and South Korea, however, said that the North failed to send the satellite into orbit. The U.S. military's Northern Command said on its Web site that "no object entered orbit" and "the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean."

Harden reported from Tokyo; staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan reported from Washington.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company