UN agrees on new sanctions to punish North Korea

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The United Nations moved towards new measures to punish North Korea for its recent nuclear test yesterday after wording for a new resolution was agreed that will tighten the inspection regime for ships suspected of carrying materials needed for a nuclear programme to the communist state.

The draft resolution would also tighten an existing arms and financial embargo. It was approved after nearly two weeks of delicate negotiations between the Western powers, including Britain and the United States, and Pyongyang's sometime allies, China and Russia. It may be formally adopted tomorrow.

While it lacks authorisation for the use of force, it represented at least a partial triumph for the Obama administration that has been pushing hardest for action. It is an "unprecedented, detailed" approach to containing North Korea under which nations would be "expected to inspect suspected contraband cargo," insisted Susan Rice, the US Ambassador in New York.

"This sanctions regime if passed by the Security Council will bite, and bite in a significant way," Mr Rice told reporters. "We think the message that the council will send, should it adopt this resolution, is that North Korea's behaviour is unacceptable, they must pay a price."

However, some vagueness in the wording and particularly the absence of any authorisation for the use of force in the interception of ships seemed to reflect a compromise demanded by Beijing and Moscow, who are anxious to avoid further destabilising or antagonising Pyongyang.

If the text indeed wins passage before the full Council tomorrow, it may not be long before North Korea, which has a record of belligerence in face of international censure, makes its opinion felt. The country's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper this week said any sanctions from the UN would be seen as a declaration of war that would be met with "due corresponding self-defence measures". Even more ominously, North Korea itself said on Tuesday it would respond by using nuclear weapons in a "merciless offensive".

It is not clear whether intercepting ships on the high seas will work in practice. The draft text says that a boat can be stopped and boarded en route to or from the country but only if permission is given by the country whose flag the ship is carrying. If a ship is flying the North Korean flag, it is hardly likely such permission will be given. In those circumstances, the vessel will in theory be expected to submit to inspection once in port.

The draft, meanwhile, explicitly condemns North Korea "in the strongest terms" for its nuclear test of 25 May. It also urges that it return to six-party talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear programme and demands that it allow international inspectors to return to its nuclear facilities.