North Korea to close nuclear test site

Lofty rhetoric and big promises by Kim Jong Un meet with scepticism in Seoul

North Korea says UN sanctions are stopping it from paying UN fees
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
(Image credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea: UN votes for watered-down sanctions

12 September

The UN Security Council voted to impose fresh sanctions on North Korea last night, but only after the US weakened them to win the backing of China and Russia.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The original American proposals were “some of the strictest sanctions yet against the already heavily censured nation”, says CNN. The US had called for a full ban on oil exports to the country - and to freeze the assets of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government.

However, Reuters reports, the resolution was significantly “watered down” at the last minute “to appease China and Russia”. Both nations have a veto as permanent members of the Security Council and have always expressed scepticism about strict sanctions.

Britain’s UN Ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, told reporters who questioned the changes to the initial US text that “there is a significant prize in keeping the whole of the Security Council” on board, and called the new resolution “very robust”.

The US and its allies have been calling for strict measures against the isolated Stalinist state since it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and claimed it had the capability to launch a nuclear strike using an intercontinental ballistic missile(ICBM).

The threat of increased sanctions drew a predictably strong reaction from Pyongyang. Speaking before the vote, North Korea’s foreign ministry said the US would pay a “due price” if sanctions were agreed and warned that it would respond in kind.

“The DPRK [North Korea] is ready and willing to use any form of ultimate means,” officials told state media. “The forthcoming measures to be taken by the DPRK will cause the US the greatest pain and suffering it had ever gone through in its entire history.”

“Differences have opened up between permanent Security Council members about how to respond to the regime’s recent nuclear tests,” says The Guardian, just weeks after they unanimously backed tougher sanctions when Pyongyang launched two ICBMs that could in theory hit US cities.

Although China condemned last week’s nuclear test, “it is wary of any measure that could foment political instability in Pyongyang”, the paper says, with its “greatest fear a united post-Kim Korean peninsula under Seoul’s control, with tens of thousands of South Korean and US troops ranged along its border with North Korea”.

There are also doubts about how effective a new round of sanctions would be, given that North Korea has successfully circumvented previous UN restrictions.

Over the weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an Iran-style deal with the regime, referring to the landmark nuclear multilateral agreement in 2015 under which Iran suspended its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

According to the Chicago Tribune, China and Russia had favoured a similar diplomatic approach “and proposed a freeze-for-freeze that would halt North Korean nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the US and South Korea stopping their joint military exercises”. That initiative was rejected by the Trump administration.

US pushes for oil embargo on North Korea – and asset freeze for Kim Jong Un

7 September

The US is pushing the United Nations Security Council to agree an oil embargo for North Korea – and has signalled it may impose sanctions unilaterally if Russia and China once again resist the move.

The embargo is one of several tougher sanctions being called for by the US in a draft resolution that members will debate on Monday.

Plans also include imposing a travel ban on Kim Jong Un and other regime members, freezing their assets, freezing the assets of the state airline Air Koryo and the army, banning North Korean labourers from working abroad, and banning textile exports.

China and Russia are expected to refuse to back the plan. Vladimir Putin has argued before that banning the small amount of oil Russia supplies to North Korea would drive Kim "into a corner", says the BBC.

But the US has already signalled it will push ahead with its own unilateral measures if the UN resolution is rejected, imposing sanctions on nations that trade with North Korea.

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin last night told reporters: "I have an executive order prepared. It's ready to go to the president. It will authorise me to... put sanctions on anybody that does trade with North Korea."

The tougher sanctions are a response not only to a series of missile tests this year by Kim, but also to the news that North Korea had carried out what is believed to be its sixth nuclear test, on Sunday. State news said a hydrogen bomb had been detonated, and analysts say this seems likely.

US President Donald Trump sounded "subdued and statesmanlike" when discussing North Korea yesterday, says The Washington Post, in contrast to the "quick-tempered threats" he has made before.

Asked if he was considering military action, Trump told reporters: "We're going to see what happens. We'll see what happens. Certainly, that's not our first choice, but we will see what happens."

Trump's handling of the situation so far has been "zigzagging", "muddled" and "off the cuff", says the Post, while Kim has been "relentlessly consistent". The North Korean dictator is looking to force major concessions from the US, says the newspaper.

China and Russia have propose a solution which entails just that – a major concession – says the BBC. The two superpowers suggest that South Korea and the US stop their annual joint military drills, which anger the North, and abandon the controversial Thaad anti-missile system.

In return, North Korea would abandon its nuclear programme, China and Russia propose. The US and South Korea have rejected the proposition.

6 September

South Korean special forces will work with the US navy Seals who killed Osama bin Laden to create a special unit to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the event of war.

The special brigade, “created by the South Korean defence ministry to neutralise 'command and control' systems in the North", will be launched in December, says The Times.

It will work with Seal Team Six, the commando group sent into Pakistan in 2011 to kill al-Qa'eda leader bin Laden. “We are in the process of conceptualising the plan,” South Korean defence minister Song Young-moo told MPs. “I believe we can create the unit by 1 December.”

The move coincides with the announcement that the US has waived restrictions on the size and range of South Korea’s weapons arsenal - allowing Seoul to develop its own “bunker-busting bombs”, says The Times.

The decision to allow further missile development follows a South Korean newspaper report this week that North Korea was moving an intercontinental ballistic missile with the potential to strike the US mainland towards its west coast under the cover of darkness.

Geopolitical tensions in the region “continue to simmer”, says The Guardian, with one of Pyongyang’s most senior diplomats saying the US would receive more “gift packages” from the regime.

Han Tae Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, told a disarmament conference in Geneva: “The recent self-defence measures by my country … are a gift package addressed to none other than the US."

“The US will receive more ‘gift packages’… as long as it relies on reckless provocations and futile attempts to put pressure on [North Korea].”

Meanwhile, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in warned, during talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, that the crisis on the Korean peninsula risks becoming “uncontrollable”.

Putin called North Korea's nuclear test on Sunday “provocative”, but warned that US-led calls for harsher sanctions on North Korea were futile. He argued that Pyongyang rightfully feared for its security.

“The use of any kind of sanctions in this situation is already useless and ineffective,” Putin said. “[North Koreans] will eat grass but they won't give up the [nuclear] programme if they don't feel safe.”

Although China has the most influence over North Korea, Russia will probably spearhead their joint opposition to calls for harsher sanctions from the UN Security Council, Anthony Rinna, an expert on Russia and North Korea at the Sino-NK research group, told The Daily Telegraph.

“China and Russia will likely be in sync,” he said.

North Korea 'begging for war', says US

05 September

The US ambassador to the UN has warned that North Korea is "begging for war" during an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York.

US envoy Nikki Haley called on the UN to introduce the toughest sanctions possible on North Korea in response to the rogue state's sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sunday.

"The time for half measures in the security council is over," she said. "The time has come to exhaust all of our diplomatic means before it's too late."

Kim Jong Un's "abusive use of missiles and his nuclear threats show that he is begging for war", she added. "War is never something the United States wants. We don’t want it now. But our country’s patience is not unlimited."

According to The New York Times, senior figures in Donald Trump's administration called the effort "a last best chance to resolve the standoff with the North using sanctions rather than military means".

While the US is set to table a set of new sanctions against North Korea, China's envoy to the UN, Liu Jieyi, has urged for a return to negotiations, and Switzerland has offered to mediate the talks.

But the "German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would press for tougher EU sanctions on North Korea, agreeing with US President Donald Trump by phone on the need for stricter measures", the BBC reports.

In response to the escalating crisis, the South Korean navy yesterday held "massive live-fire drills in the East Sea in a show of its resolve to retaliate against North Korea's provocations", says Yonhap News.

North Korea 'has missile-ready nuclear bomb'

4 September

North Korea has successfully miniaturised a nuclear bomb so it can be carried by an inter-continental ballistic missile, according to South Korea, and its government is preparing to conduct another missile test.

The claim was made to South Korea's parliament by defence minister Song Young-moo, speaking after he authorised a live-fire exercise simulating an attack on North Korean nuclear facilities this morning.

That would make it five times bigger than Kim's last nuclear test, in September 2016, and three times bigger than the blast with which the US destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, says the Daily Telegraph.

The test represents a "quantum leap for North Korea's nuclear capability", says The Washington Post. State media in the North claimed it was a hydrogen bomb. That remains to be proved – but if it was, that puts Kim's triumph onto "a different scale", says the paper.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.