The leading world powers huddled in an emergency session at the United Nations yesterday to forge agreement on measures to punish North Korea for its reported testing of a nuclear device on Monday. Ideas ranged from sanctions on whisky imports to inspecting all cargo ships entering and leaving its waters.
But with the regime in Pyongyang still showing unrepentant defiance, it remained hard to say whether measures to further isolate the country from the rest of the world would do much good. Nothing can now reverse the events of Monday, when North Korea staged its nuclear breakout.
Even settling on sanctions will be hard. Last night China, backed by Russia, said it opposed plans to pass a resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which implies it could be enforced militarily, saying reference to a single article within it would suffice. It also argued for a narrower scope for the sanctions.
More than just punishment, whatever emerges from the UN will have two other main aims: to pressure North Korea to return to the six-party talks that it has boycotted for 13 months on ending its nuclear weapons programme and to prevent it from even considering proliferating its new-found technology.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, is far from remorseful. Rather, the regime said it was for the US to resolve the crisis or face the consequences of the unleashing of warheads. "We hope the situation will be resolved before an unfortunate incident of us firing a nuclear missile comes," the South Korean news agency, Yonhap, quoted an unidentified North Korean official as saying. "That depends on how the US will act."
The official said the nuclear test was "an expression of our intention to face the US across the negotiating table". It is most unlikely, however, that North Korea, yet at least, has developed a device stable and small enough to mount in the tip of a missile. Nor is there evidence that its long-range ballistic missiles are reliable. A test-launch of one in July ended with it flopping into the sea.
In an attempt to reassure Pyongyang, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said it should not fear US military action. "The USA doesn't have any intention to attack North Korea or to invade North Korea," she said.
A member of the North Korean Assembly, Ri Jong Hyok, defended the test during a visit to the European Union in Brussels. "Whenever we take measures it is not necessary for us to look the others in the face. Every country has its own interest, no country can represent our interest," he said, adding: "We have to take these measures so that we have a nuclear deterrent against the Americans."
British officials expressed confidence that a "binding package of measures" would emerge from the UN within seven days. But Japan and the US will now have to decide how far to push for broad Chapter 7 authorisation, given the resistance of China
Beijing even so continued to display unusual anger. "The nuclear test will undoubtedly exert a negative impact on our relations," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, adding that it was "in disregard of the international community's shared opposition".
China's envoy to the UN, Wang Guangya, repeated that sanctions should be "prudent". In response to a reporter's questions, he said: "I think there has to be some punitive actions, but also I think these actions have to be appropriate."
John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, dismissed the North Korean rhetoric since the detonation. "This is the way North Korea typically negotiates by threat and intimidation," he said. "It worked for them before. It won't work for them now."
The crisis in Asia is adding to President George Bush's problems with just four weeks until crucial mid-term congressional elections. Democrats wasted no time in attacking his foreign policy, saying the administration's focus on Iraq meant insufficient attention had been paid to North Korea, which never did anything to hide its march towards Monday's nuclear test.
"What it tells you is that we started at the wrong end of the 'axis of evil'," the former Democratic senator Sam Nunn, who is dedicated to anti-proliferation efforts, told The New York Times. "We started with the least dangerous of the countries, Iraq, and we knew it at the time."
In Tokyo, the newly installed Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, told members of parliament that Japan had no intention of abandoning its long-held commitment to remaining a nuclear-free nation, despite the new threat from South China Sea. "There will be no change in our non-nuclear arms principles," he said.
A list of 13 possible measures tabled by the US on Monday include inspection of all cargo to and from North Korea to limit the proliferation of weapons, and blanket bans on luxury and military goods from guns to Scotch whisky and material that could be used in the production of weapons of mass destruction.
Japan followed with a few ideas of its own that, if anything, were more stringent, including requiring all countries to bar North Korean ships or planes from their territories. Indeed, Japan implied that its own sanctions regime may include a total trade embargo with North Korea, a ban on all North Korean ships from its ports and steps to prevent all North Korean nationals from entering Japan.
While China has long been queasy about UN sanctions, it will also be anxious about measures that could precipitate a collapse of the North Korean regime. The country's economy is already on its knees, in part because of the wide-ranging sanctions on it that already exist. It depends on food and oil supplies from China to keep going at all.
Reaction from around the world
Unidentified Official: 'We hope the situation will be resolved before an unfortunate incident of us firing a nuclear missile comes. That depends on how the US will act.'
John Bolton, US Ambassador to the UN: 'This is the way North Korea typically negotiates by threat and intimidation. It's worked for them before. It won't work for them now.'
Sergei Ivanov, Foreign Minister: 'A nuclear device was tested, it is a colossal blow to the nonproliferation regime. North Korea de facto has become the ninth nuclear power.'
Wang Guangya, Ambassador to the UN: 'I think that there has to be some punitive actions. We need to have a firm, constructive, appropriate but prudent response to North Korea's nuclear threat.'
Statement from Parliament: 'As the only country to have ever suffered a nuclear attack... Japan strongly condemns North Korea's actions and demands that it abandon its nuclear weapons programme.'Reuse content