UN tightens sanctions against North Korea

15 June 2009

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has condemned North Korea's recent nuclear test and has tightened sanctions against the rogue state. Although there is no doubt that the country exploded a nuclear device, its size is now thought to have been considerably smaller than first suggested.


The 15-member UNSC voted unanimously on 12 June to adopt a US-sponsored resolution that would seek to block funding for nuclear, missile and proliferation activities through targeted sanctions on additional goods, persons and entities, widening the ban on arms trade. Resolution 1874 also calls for member states to inspect and destroy all banned cargo to and from North Korea if they have reasonable grounds to suspect a violation.


Welcoming the strong support for the resolution, US Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo commented, "The message of this resolution is clear: North Korea's behaviour is unacceptable to the international community, and the international community is determined to respond. North Korea should return without conditions to a process of peaceful dialogue. It should honour its previous commitments to 'denuclearize' the Korean Peninsula. It should shun provocation and proliferation." She added, "But for now, its choices have led it to face markedly stronger sanctions from the international community."


Remaining defiant, North Korea called the resolution "yet another vile product of the US-led offensive of international pressure aimed at undermining [North Korea's] ideology and its system chosen by its people by disarming it and suffocating its economy."


A statement from North Korea's ministry of foreign affairs said that the country's second nuclear test was "a self-defensive measure as it was conducted to cope with such hostile acts of the US and this does not run counter to any international law." It added, "There can be no genuine peace in the absence of independence and equality."


In response to the additional sanctions, North Korea vowed to weaponize all of the newly-extracted plutonium, adding that more than one-third of the spent fuel rods from its Yongbyon reactor have so far been reprocessed. It also said that it would begin enriching uranium, towards which it has had "enough success". This confirms beliefs that it was developing the technology as a separate track towards nuclear weapons.


Test results


The country's second nuclear weapons test on 25 May was conducted underground like the first, and was immediately hailed as being successful. The blast of October 2006 was estimated at less than 1 kiloton, whereas the latest was initially put at around 20 kilotons - comparable in power to the bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. It was followed by a test of short range missiles in a further provocation.


However, there is now uncertainty about the yield of the second device and, as a consequence, whether it was 'successful'. Seismic results indicate the yield was between 1 kiloton and 4 kilotons, most likely 2 kilotons. Some even speculate that the low yield indicates a test of a smaller device, such as one configured to fit a missile. There is also speculation that the test failed to perform as intended.


No emissions of noble gas or particles have been detected, as would be expected had a large nuclear device been detonated. This would be consistent with an explosion around 2 kilotons, where a gas-tight cavern may have formed in the rock.


The latest tests come towards the end of a disarmament process which has so far achieved eight of its eleven aims. That program followed a landmark 2007 commitment from North Korea to the other of the Six Parties (China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the USA) to abandon "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs." Since then the international community was able to verify the disablement of several key nuclear weapons facilities including the Yongbyon reactor that has produced the country's weapons plutonium, which had its cooling towers demolished. In return North Korea gained significant energy and food assistance and was removed from the USA's list of state sponsors of terrorism. The mood then cooled somewhat with international inspections curtailed, North Korean threats to restart Yongbyon, and now this destabilising test of a weapon and its potential delivery method.


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