The United States led a push at the UN Security Council Wednesday for tougher sanctions on North Korea, while warning the isolated regime’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile had drastically narrowed the path for diplomacy.
In a hard-hitting address to the council, US Ambassador Nikki Haley said Tuesday’s ICBM test had made “the world a more dangerous place,” and that Washington was ready to use force if need be to deal with the threat of a nuclear-armed Pyongyang.
But after US and South Korean forces fired off missiles simulating a precision strike against North Korea’s leadership, Haley also made clear Washington would exhaust diplomatic avenues before it resorts to confrontation, promising to submit a new draft sanctions resolution within days.
“Make no mistake, North Korea’s launch of an ICBM is a clear and sharp military escalation,” Haley warned in a full-throated denunciation of a missile test Kim Jong-Un styled as a gift to “American bastards.”
“The United States is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies,” she said. “One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must. But we prefer not to have to go in that direction.”
While Pyongyang’s actions were “quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution,” Haley said “there remains more that the international community can and must do, diplomatically and economically.”
The US focus, she told the council, was on how to push through tighter sanctions, which could target countries that continue to trade with North Korea, curb oil exports to the isolated country, tighten air and maritime restrictions and impose travel bans on its officials.
And she singled out China — increasingly in the crosshairs of the US administration as the North’s sole major ally and economic lifeline — as key to any diplomatic solution.
“We will work with China — we will work with any and every country that believes in peace — but we will not repeat the inadequate approaches of the past that have brought us to this dark day.”
China, Russia skeptical
Tuesday’s launch marked a milestone in Pyongyang’s decades-long drive for the capability to threaten the US mainland with a nuclear strike, and poses a stark foreign policy challenge for Donald Trump.
The US president had dismissed the idea of the North possessing a working ICBM, vowing it “won’t happen”, but experts said the missile could reach Alaska or even further towards the continental US.
While the new US sanctions push won backing from France, it raised immediate protests from fellow permanent Security Council member Russia whose Deputy Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov warned that “sanctions will not resolve the issue.”
China did not immediately address the call for sanctions, but its Ambassador Liu Jieyi once more pushed Beijing’s alternative proposal for talks based on a freeze of North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, in exchange for a halt to US-South Korean military drills.
“China has always been firmly opposed to chaos and conflict on the Korean peninsula. Military means must not be an option in this regard,” Liu said.
Six sets of sanctions
In all, six sets of sanctions have been imposed on North Korea since it first tested an atomic device in 2006, to deny Kim the hard currency needed to fund his military programs.
Two Security Council resolutions last year provided for significant curbs on North Korea’s coal exports, a major source of revenue, restrictions on banking and mandatory searches of all cargo to and from North Korea.
Frank Aum, a former advisor on North Korea at the US defense department, said more sanctions were seen by the US administration as its only realistic option.
“I don’t think the Trump administration sees any other options. They don’t really believe in negotiations at this point. They feel like they need to apply greater financial pressure,” said Aum.
Amid international condemnation of the test, South Korean and US military forces launched short-range ballistic missiles of their own into the Sea of Japan less than 24 hours after.
The South’s new President Moon Jae-In, who backs bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table, said the international community would look at “ramping up sanctions” in response to its latest “serious provocation.”
The US and South Korea are in a security alliance, with 28,500 US troops stationed in the South to protect it.
Pyongyang says it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself against the threat of invasion and multiple sets of UN sanctions have failed to halt its atomic and missile programs.
Questions however remain over the precise capabilities of the Hwasong-14 missile.
The missile only travelled little more than 900 kilometers (560 miles) to come down in the Sea of Japan, but the altitude it reached — more than 2,800 kilometers according to Pyongyang — demonstrated it can travel far further.
South Korea’s Defense Minister Han Min-koo put its range at 7,000 to 8,000 kilometers — far enough to put US Pacific Command in Hawaii within reach.