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Are the New U.N. Sanctions More Than North Korea Bargained for?

Risking China's displeasure, North Korea threatened further nuclear action in response to a U.N. sanctions resolution that Beijing helped write.

North Korea's nuclear test in February, its third, was the first under its young leader, Kim Jong Un, whose government immediately threatened a nuclear strike against the United States and vowed to punish the American "puppet" to the South. Pyongyang also spoke of ending the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War 60 years ago.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, shrugged off the intimidation, telling reporters:

North Korea will achieve nothing by continued threats and provocations. These will only further isolate the country and its people and undermine international efforts to promote peace and stability in Northeast Asia.... Taken together, these sanctions will bite and bite hard."

Experts believe North Korea does not yet have the capability to strike the United States.

The U.N. Security Council resolution, which builds on other measures adopted since 2006, will certainly make the acquisition of armaments and other goods more expensive for the isolated nation, which has suffered from famine and also depends on an estimated 200,000 people locked into labor camps.

Misjudged the response?
Jeffrey Laurenti, senior fellow on international affairs at The Century Foundation, said that North Korea may not have expected a strong response.

North Korea's leaders would surely have calculated that their test would result in some kind of response by the Security Council--though perhaps they had thought, based on the somewhat muddled response to their 'satellite launch' missile test in December that nothing very much would happen. The Security Council may have given them more than they bargained for.

But the measure's ultimate success depends on whether China carries out some of the tougher provisions in the resolution, such as inspecting shipments from its warm water port at Dalian in northeast China or halting some financial transactions.

China's U.N. ambassador, Li Baodong, told reporters that "Adoption of the resolution itself is not enough. Adoption of the resolution is not for the sake of adoption. We want to see full implementation of the resolution. "

But he stressed that that the "the top priority" now was to defuse tension, "bring down the heat" and focus on negotiations and diplomacy.

Delivering enormous aid and trade, China supplies North Korea with 90 percent of its energy and a substantial amount of food. It could easily bring down the regime but Beijing dreads the instability that would result.

Or worse yet reunification, with the South absorbing the north, West German style. Unification 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.

South Korea's U.N. ambassador, Kim Sook, told reporters that his government wanted "dialogue and confidence building" with the North.

But he said North Korea first needs to "abandon nuclear programs and their provocative and hostile policy towards south as well as to outside world. North Korean will pay a dear price for its illicit activities and wrongdoings."

Hours before the resolution was adopted, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman told the country's news agency KCNA:

"Since the United States is about to ignite a nuclear war, we will be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor in order to protect our supreme interest."

Embellishing, Army Gen. Kang Pyo Yong spoke to a crowd of thousands in Pyongyang protesting the sanctions and the annual U.S.-South Korean military drill that lasts until the end of April.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles and various other missiles, which have already set their striking targets, are now armed with lighter, smaller and diversified nuclear warheads and are placed on a standby status. When we shell, Washington, which is the stronghold of evils, will be engulfed in a sea of fire.

What the resolutions says
The resolution, tougher than expected, was drafted by the United States and China and adopted by 15-0 vote. It builds on sanctions in response to Pyongyang's 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests and several rocket launches. (see U.S. fact sheet)

The measure cuts off North Korean leaders' ability to travel (except to the United Nations) and buy luxury good, including precious gems, yachts and fast cars. It requires states to inspect cargo on their territory.

Another provision calls on (but does not demand) nations to deny aircraft to land or take off from their territory if they suspect they are carrying banned materials. And it has new travel sanctions that obligate nations to expel agents working for North Korean companies under sanctions.

The writing was accomplished in less than three weeks. Usually, the United States drafts a tough measure and China softens it. With North Korea having few friends, no Security Council member raised objections and there was no public debate.

"I think it signifies that members of the Security Council believe that the resolution speaks for itself and that no explanation was necessary," said Russia's ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, this month's Council president.

Will the sanctions work in curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions?

No one can predict what Pyongyang will do, which frequently threatens action, then reneges and then does something anyway to make sure the world and the region pay attention. It has the bomb but not (yet) the means to deliver it via a missile.

And its leaders have a lot of practice in keeping everyone guessing.

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