WASHINGTON // Members of the UN Security Council yesterday began work on a draft resolution that would punish North Korea for conducting its second nuclear test, even as the communist state reportedly fired two short-range missiles in another move of defiance. The Security Council, in an emergency session on Monday, swiftly and unanimously condemned North Korea's underground test, saying it was a "clear violation" of a UN resolution passed in 2006 after North Korea set off its first atomic device. "What we heard today was swift, clear, unequivocal condemnation and opposition to what occurred," Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said after the council's hour-long session.
"The meeting was brief and everybody essentially took the same view. We are now resolved to work on a resolution. We believe it ought to be a strong resolution with appropriately strong contents." Speaking yesterday in Helsinki, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, reiterated his earlier call for North Korea to return to the six-party talks, the multilateral diplomatic effort aimed at halting the country's nuclear programme.
Pyongyang said in April, after the UN Security Council denounced its launch of a long-range rocket and tightened sanctions, that it would abandon those talks. "The only viable option at this time for North Korea to remain as a responsible member of the international community is to return to the dialogue table," Mr Ban said at a news conference. Barack Obama, the US president, has called North Korea's latest nuclear test a "blatant violation" of international law and sought a strong and unified response from the international community. On Monday, he said the US would work with its allies to "stand up to" North Korea's behaviour.
But as UN diplomats began work in New York on a new resolution, it was not at all clear how far beyond its strong condemnations the Security Council would go. Only France, at this point, openly called for new sanctions, with its deputy permanent representative to the UN, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, saying there must be a "price to pay". Mr Ban declined yesterday to say what measures the resolution might, or should, include.
On Monday evening, Mr Obama spoke with Lee Myung-bak, the president of South Korea, and Taro Aso, the prime minister of Japan, to pledge his "unequivocal commitment" to the defence of both nations. The White House said the leaders agreed to work towards passage of a UN resolution containing "concrete measures" to stop North Korea's nuclear activities. South Korea said yesterday it will now fully participate in the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which allows for the interdiction of North Korean and other vessels in an effort to prevent the transport of weapons of mass destruction.
Mr Obama, already saddled with multiple crises on both the domestic and foreign fronts, is faced with yet another one. North Korea's actions constitute a direct challenge to his administration, whose foreign policy approach involves engagement with hostile nations rather than their isolation. The US has offered direct talks with North Korea to "supplement" those under the six-party framework. So far, North Korea has rebuffed the outreach.
The manner in which Mr Obama proceeds will be closely watched for any clues on how he may handle other foreign policy challenges, including Iran. But what this week's nuclear test might make most clear is how limited Washington's options are when it comes to getting North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said recently that North Korea's return to the negotiating table would be "implausible, if not impossible".
Analysts said much will depend on China which, as a permanent member of the Security Council, can veto any resolution on North Korea, including one that would impose new sanctions. But Sheila Smith, an expert on north-east Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, suggested that Pyongyang has forced Beijing into a position that will make it difficult for the latter not to agree to sanctions.
"The task is two-fold for us who watch Beijing," she said in an interview posted at cfr.org. "It is not only China's responsibility to regional stability which it claims a very strong interest in, of course, but it also claims a global commitment to non-proliferation. So the bar is high for China. The Obama administration feels quite confident that Beijing will stand up to that challenge. But China needs to act now quite forcefully."