UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - The UN Security Council on Wednesday (Jan 6) agreed to roll out new measures to punish North Korea after Pyongyang announced it had carried out a successful hydrogen bomb test – a claim rejected by Washington.
With backing from China, Pyongyang’s main ally, the 15-member council strongly condemned the test and said it would begin work on a new UN draft resolution that would contain “further significant measures”.
UN diplomats confirmed that talks were under way on strengthening several sets of sanctions that have been imposed on North Korea since its first tested an atomic device in 2006.
Pyongyang’s announcement drew swift condemnation from the international community, including from China and Washington, which said an initial analysis was “not consistent” with North Korea’s claims of a successful hydrogen bomb test.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye condemned what she described as a “grave provocation” and called for a strong international response.
“I demand the DPRK cease any further nuclear activities,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
Sceptical experts suggested the apparent yield was far too low for a thermonuclear device.
North Korean state television announced “the republic’s first hydrogen bomb test,” which was “successfully performed at 10am" (9-30am Singapore time).
“We have now joined the rank of advanced nuclear states,” it said, adding that the test was of a miniaturised device.
State television showed North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s signed order – dated Dec 15 – to go ahead with the test and begin 2016 with the “thrilling sound of the first hydrogen bomb explosion.”
The UN Security Council met behind closed doors at the request of the United States and Japan, who led the push for fresh punitive measures.
“We will be working with others on a resolution on further sanctions,” British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters.
In a unanimous statement, the council said it “strongly condemned” the underground test and described it as a “clear threat to international peace and security.”
Japanese Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa told reporters that he would be pushing for “a series of measures under chapter 7” of the UN charter, which provides for enforceable sanctions.
But it remained an open question whether China, a veto-wielding council member, would support tough measures against its ally.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing said it “firmly opposes” the nuclear test, which was carried out “irrespective of the international community’s opposition.”
The three previous tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 triggered waves of UN sanctions.
Currently, there are a total of 20 entities and 12 individuals on the UN sanctions blacklist, which provides for a global travel ban and an assets freeze.
The United Nations has adopted four sanctions resolutions on North Korea that impose an arms embargo and a ban on the transfer of nuclear or missile technology.
In 2013, the council strengthened the sanctions by asking all countries to prevent the sale of luxury goods to North Korea, a measure designed to hit at Pyongyang’s elite.
The new test, which came just two days before Mr Kim’s birthday, was initially detected as a 5.1-magnitude tremor at the North’s main Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the north-east of the country.
The weapons yield was initially estimated at between six and nine kilotonnes – similar to the North’s last nuclear test in 2013.
Last month, Mr Kim suggested Pyongyang had already developed such a device.
Most experts had assumed North Korea was years from developing a hydrogen bomb, and assessments were divided on how far it had gone in developing a miniaturised warhead to fit on a ballistic missile.
“The initial analysis that has been conducted... is not consistent with North Korea’s claim of a successful hydrogen bomb test,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
“There is nothing that has occurred in the last 24 hours that has caused the United States government to change our assessment of North Korea’s technical and military capabilities.”
Dr Bruce Bennett, a senior defence analyst with the Rand Corporation, said if an H-bomb was actually tested, the detonation clearly failed – at least the fusion stage.
“If it were a real H-bomb, the Richter scale reading should have been about a hundred times more powerful,” Dr Bennett told AFP.
North Korea’s fourth nuclear test marked a striking act of defiance in the face of warnings from enemies and allies alike that Pyongyang would pay a steep price for moving forward with its nuclear weapons programme.
The North’s official news agency was unrepentant. US “imperialists” had escalated the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of war, defying the North’s calls for a peace treaty, it said.
“The more frantic the hostile forces get in their moves to isolate and stifle the DPRK (North Korea), the stronger its nuclear deterrent will grow, bringing them to deathbed repentance.”
The final response of China, North Korea’s economic and diplomatic patron, will be key in determining the international community’s next step.
“Beijing will face increased pressure both domestically and internationally to punish and rein in Kim Jong-Un,” said Ms Yanmei Xie, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for North-east Asia.
“A nuclear-armed North Korea is uncomfortable and disturbing,” Ms Xie said.
“But a regime collapse in Pyongyang leading to mass chaos next door and potentially a united Korean peninsula with Washington extending its influence northward to China’s doorstep is downright frightening.”