UNITED NATIONS/SEOUL (REUTERS) - The UN Security Council on Friday (Dec 22) unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea following its latest intercontinental ballistic missile test, a move that analysts said could have a significant impact on the isolated country's struggling economy.
The resolution seeks to ban nearly 90 per cent of refined petroleum product exports to North Korea by capping them at 500,000 barrels a year and, in what diplomats said was a last-minute change, demands the repatriation of North Koreans working abroad within 24 months, instead of 12 months as first proposed.
The US-drafted resolution would also cap crude oil supplies to North Korea at four million barrels a year. The United States has been calling on China to limit its oil supply to its neighbour and ally.
Wu Haitao, China’s deputy U.N. ambassador, said tensions on the Korean peninsula risk “spiralling out of control” and he repeated Beijing’s call for talks. China’s foreign ministry said it hoped all parties would implement the resolution and urged all sides to exercise restraint.
Friday's resolution passed by a vote of 15 to zero, said Japan's ambassador to the United Nations. Japan holds the presidency of the Security Council this month.
North Korea on Nov 29 said it successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile in a "breakthrough" that puts the US mainland within range of its nuclear weapons whose warheads could withstand re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.
"It (the resolution) sends the unambiguous message to Pyongyang that further defiance will invite further punishments and isolation," Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, said following the vote.
Tensions have been rising over North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes, which it pursues in defiance of years of UN Security Council resolutions, with bellicose rhetoric coming from both Pyongyang and the White House.
In November, North Korea called for a halt to what it called "brutal sanctions", saying a previous round imposed after its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept 3 constituted genocide.
US diplomats have made clear they are seeking a diplomatic solution but have proposed new, tougher sanctions to ratchet up pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
North Korea regularly threatens to destroy South Korea, the US and Japan, and says its weapons programmes are necessary to counter US aggression. The US stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.
On Friday, a spokesman for North Korea's foreign ministry called US President Donald Trump's recently released national security strategy the latest American policy seeking to "stifle our country and turn the entire Korean peninsula" into an outpost of American hegemony.
He said Trump was seeking "total subordination of the whole world".
Speaking before the Security Council vote, analysts said the new sanctions could have a major effect on the North's economy.
"If they were enforced, the cap on oil would be devastating for North Korea's haulage industry, for North Koreans who use generators at home or for productive activities, and for (state-owned enterprises) that do the same," said Peter Ward, a columnist for NK News, a website that tracks North Korea.
The forced repatriation of foreign workers would also cut off vital sources of foreign currency and investment not only for the government but also for North Korea's emerging market economy, he said.
"If such sanctions were enforced, they would thus impede and endanger North Korea's economic development."
John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School, said it was important to manage expectations about sanctions, which could take years to have a full impact while the North was making progress in its weapons progammes at a pace measured in weeks and months.
“If the game plan is to use sanctions as the last non-military policy tool to induce North Korea’s return to the denuclearization table, we may quickly find Washington prioritizing military options,” Park said.
Asked about the effects of sanctions before these latest proposals were announced, Michael Kirby, who led a UN inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea, said cutting off fuel imports would be "a very serious step".
"Cutting off oil, petroleum supplies, would obviously have a very big impact on the ordinary population," he said.
China, which supplies most of North Korea's oil, has backed successive rounds of UN sanctions but had resisted past US calls to cut off supplies to its neighbour.