UN Security Council split spells end of an era for US-led sanctions on North Korea

The US assessed that North Korea had tested six intercontinental ballistic missiles this year. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - A decision by China and Russia to veto new United Nations sanctions on North Korea pushed by the United States shattered any veneer of global cooperation, straining efforts to pressure Pyongyang as it prepares to conduct a new nuclear test.

The two countries on Thursday (May 26) vetoed a US-led push to impose more UN sanctions on North Korea over its renewed ballistic missile launches, publicly splitting the UN Security Council for the first time since it started punishing Pyongyang in 2006.

US officials slammed it as a "sharp departure from the Council's track record of collective action on this issue."

"Today's vote means North Korea will feel more free to take further escalatory actions," Mr Jeffrey Prescott, deputy to the US Ambassador to the UN, said on Twitter. "But we can't resign ourselves to this fate - that would be far too dangerous."

Russia's UN ambassador called the resolution "a path to a dead end," while China's envoy said it would only lead to more"negative effects and escalation of confrontation."

Analysts and some diplomats said Washington may have miscalculated in its rush to impose consequences for North Korea's missile tests.

"I think it was a big mistake for the US to push for what was sure to fail rather than showing unified opposition to North Korea's actions," said Ms Jenny Town, director of the US-based 38 North programme, which monitors North Korea.

"In the current political environment, the idea that China and Russia could agree with the US on anything would have sent a strong signal to Pyongyang."

One European diplomat said that their country supported the US resolution but that they were less appreciative of the timing and thought that Washington should have waited until North Korea carried out a new nuclear test.

The United States assessed that North Korea had tested six intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) this year and was"actively preparing to conduct a nuclear test," which would be the country's first since 2017.

Over the past 16 years the Security Council has steadily, and unanimously, stepped up sanctions to cut off funding for Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes. It last tightened sanctions on Pyongyang in 2017.

Washington increasingly criticised China and Russia for what it saw as lax enforcement, even before the latest political rift.

China and Russia have called for sanctions to be eased to prevent humanitarian suffering in the North, and to jumpstart stalled denuclearisation talks.

Professor Artyom Lukin from the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok said it seemed like the United States wanted to provoke and produce this split in the Security Council, knowing that China and Russia would not support the resolution.

Moscow and Beijing appear somewhat tolerant of North Korea's resuming long-range missile launches, but it is far from clear that Pyongyang has Russia's and China's consent, tacit or otherwise, for a nuclear test, he added.

"Nuclear testing is seen by Beijing, and especially Moscow, as a far more serious matter, compared to missile testing," Prof Lukin said.

Nevertheless, Russia sees the Ukraine crisis as a proxy war with the United States, and the war is now bleeding into the situation around North Korea, he said.

"Even though Moscow and Washington have a real shared interest in the denuclearisation of North Korea, it has now become extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to collaborate," Prof Lukin said.

China's ambassador to the UN, Mr Zhang Jun, suggested that the United States may see the Korean issue as "a chessman on the chessboard for their so-called Indo-Pacific strategy."

Remote video URL

The Chinese and Russian veto is a telling sign of the deterioration of their overall relationship with the United States and its allies, said Beijing-based security scholar Zhao Tong of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Beijing could have abstained, but it used the veto to publicly signal its growing disagreement with and resentment toward Washington," he said. "Everyone knew that the veto would send a wrong and dangerous message to North Korea, but Russia and China believe they face higher stakes in pushing back against their perceived hostility from the Western countries."

Beijing and Moscow also genuinely see North Korea's nuclear and missile developments as driven by threats from Washington and cannot be fully blamed on Pyongyang, Mr Zhao said.

"We have a perception gap problem among the major powers," he said. "North Korea is only exploiting and benefiting from it."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.