UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. Security Council, including China, condemned North Korea's third nuclear test and said it was considering an "appropriate" response. But Beijing, the closest ally of Pyongyang, is expected to be cautious in imposing tough measures.
Sanctions, adopted in 2006 and 2009, appear to have had little impact on North Korea's closeted leadership, which seems to want attention and tell the world it can still surprise them should no one pay attention.
There is an eccentric cycle to tests, which are either a reaction to Security Council sanctions or alleged American and South Korean belligerency. North Korea usually warns it is going to do something, then retracts the statement and then does it anyway. (See timeline)
"12" seems to be a favorite number
The DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) often chooses the 12th day of a month. On April 12 last year it fired a failed rocket. The same effort succeeded on December 12 and its nuclear test this week was on February 12.
"The 3rd underground nuclear test conducted by the DPRK today is part of substantial counter-action against the U.S. hostile policy and arbitrary practices," said the North Korea news agency KCNA, in announcing the test. So there is speculation it was timed for President Obama's State of the Union address, Lincoln's birthday, South Korea's presidency of the U.N. Security Council or Seoul's upcoming elections. Pick one.
China: Rock or a hard place?
Beijing, which by no means appreciates a nuclear state on its border, could bring down the entire North Korean apparatus. It could stop trade and open its borders (There are an estimated 100,000 illegal North Korean refugees already in China).
But as one Western diplomat said: "A nuclear North Korea is not as bad for China as a collapse of North Korea."
China dreads the instability that would result. Or worse yet reunification, with the South absorbing the north, West German style. Reunification would also see 28,000 American troops on the 38th parallel, near the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China and site of a 1950 Korean War battle. Technically the war never ended. There is an armistice but no peace treaty.
Still Beijing, summoned the North Korean ambassador. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China was "strongly dissatisfied with" and "firmly opposed to" DPRK's nuclear test, urging Pyongyang not to take any actions that would worsen the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea conducted nuclear weapons tests in 2006 and 2009 and then again recently, weeks after rocket launches in 2012. The Security Council, in legally binding sanctions resolutions imposed after each test, demanded that Pyongyang halt all nuclear or missile tests. But the sanctions, while it made purchasing goods abroad more expensive, were never as stringent as those imposed against Iran, such as targeting financial flows.
After an emergency meeting on Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council "strongly condemned the test and vowed to start work on" appropriate measures" in response, said South Korea's foreign minister Kim Sung-hwan, whose country holds the rotating Council president for February.
"Path of defiance"
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, also told the Council:
I strongly condemn Pyongyang's reckless act, which shows outright disregard for the repeated call of the international community to refrain from further provocative measures. The test is a clear and grave violation of the relevant resolutions of the Security Council... It is deplorable that Pyongyang has chosen the path of defiance.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters that Washington wants the Security Council to pass a resolution that would "augment the sanctions regime" already in place after Pyongyang's 2006 and 2009 atomic tests. She said:
The actions of North Korea are a threat to regional peace and security, international peace and security. And they are not acceptable. They will not be tolerated, and they will be met with North Korea's increasing isolation and pressure under United Nations sanctions.
Most diplomats believe that any future resolution will be negotiated bilaterally between China and the United States, both permanent Security Council members with veto power. The past measures, which make it more difficult for Korea to trade abroad and increase costs, include a ban on nuclear and missile technology, luxury goods, and an arms embargo. There is also a black list of companies, banks and individuals linked to the country's missile and nuclear programs.
The conflict is not as one sided as it appears since previous promises from the United States for help with reactors and other fuel were ignored. The Obama administration and Congress have also ignored the need for humanitarian food aid despite reports of famine in many parts of the country.
Not ignored however is the ill treatment for thousands. Says Human Rights Watch:
Arbitrary arrest, detention, lack of due process, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees remain serious and endemic problems. North Korea also practices collective punishment for various anti-state offenses, for which it enslaves hundreds of thousands of citizens in prison camps, including children. The government periodically publicly executes citizens for stealing state property, hoarding food, and other "anti-socialist" crimes.
Some of the military missile and nukes could be diverted to improving living conditions and China and the United States could insist on re-starting talks. But boys like their toys.
Follow Evelyn Leopold on Twitter: www.twitter.com/evjournalist