The U.N. Security Council first called on North Korea to rein in its nuclear ambitions in 1993; more than a decade later, in 2006, it imposed its first round of sanctions to compel Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
The U.N. pressure campaign -- punctuated by perennial bouts of nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang -- has left Democratic and Republican administrations with little to show for their efforts. During the Obama administration, the Security Council has expanded the sanctions and threatened four times to impose additional penalties on North Korea if it continues to flout international demands to halt its nuclear program.
Pyongyang demonstrated once again this week it has no intention to heed those threats. In a press statement issued shortly after North Korea set off its third nuclear test on Monday, Pyongyang responded to the chorus of international condemnation with the usual bluster: North Korea, the statement asserted, has been forced to develop a nuclear deterrent to counter what it calls a "hostile" U.S. campaign to threaten its existence, and deprive it of what it sees as its legitimate right to launch satellites into space.
"If the United States makes the situation complicated by remaining hostile through the end we will have no choice but to take serial measures with more intense second and third response," the statement warned. It added that the interdiction of North Korean vessels "will be instantly regarded as an act of war and will lead to our relentless retaliatory strikes on their bases."
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, hit back, pledging a "swift, credible, and strong response by way of a Security Council resolution that further impedes the growth of DPRK's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and its abilities to engage in proliferation actions."
But Rice encountered immediate resistance from China during the council's closed door session on Tuesday. China's deputy U.N. envoy, Wang Min, said that Beijing was firmly opposed to North Korea's action and underscored the importance of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. But he also sought to water down the council's response, initially arguing that the nuclear test posed no threat to international peace and security and needed to be addressed through dialogue with the government.
Wang ultimately yielded on that point after Rice read out North Korea's statement to the council, in which she posed a simple question: How can North Korea's nuclear test, coupled with a threat to strike out at the United States, not constitute a threat to international peace and security?
But Wang secured a concession -- the removal of a provision underlining the council's intent to begin negotiation of a Security Council resolution under Chapter Seven -- that signaled China's ongoing reluctance to impose further sanctions on North Korea. (Chapter Seven is the provision in the U.N. Charter that it invokes for the imposition of sanctions). In its place, the council issued a statement pledging to consider "appropriate measures" in response to Pyongyang's action. Western diplomats noted that previous North Korean nuclear tests have resulted in Chapter Seven resolutions, and it would be unthinkable that a resolution adopted in response to the latest test would not be under Chapter Seven.
So what measures could the U.N. Security Council take, short of military action (which virtually no country advocates), to convince North Korea to halt its nuclear program?
North Korea is already perhaps the most isolated country in the world. Its trade is scrutinized at foreign ports. Ships carrying North Korean supplies are routinely boarded and searched. Its banks largely shy away from doing business in the world's main financial markets.
Rice provided few details, saying simply that the United States would seek to "tighten" and "augment" a set of existing sanctions aimed at limiting North Korea's capacity to develop its weapons programs. The U.S. envoy recalled that the Security Council had just warned Pyongyang last month that it would face "significant action" from the council if it launched a ballistic missile or tested a nuclear weapon. "And indeed, we will do so," she assured reporters.
Turtle Bay has compiled a list of possible sanctions targets:
The 800-pound gorilla in the debate about the effectiveness of any sanctions is China. By the end of 2010, the last date for which there are records, China's trade with North Korea had boomed, surpassing $3.06 billion, up nearly 10 percent over 2008, according to figures cited by a U.N. panel monitoring enforcement of the North Korea sanctions.
A major share of North Korea's imports arrive via the Chinese port of Dalian, or across the border by land. George Lopez, a professor of peace studies at Notre Dame University and former member of a Security Council panel monitoring North Korea sanctions, said China could have a major impact on the sanctions if it enforced them more aggressively.
For instance, he said, they could conduct random inspections of goods entering the country, and they apply pressure on Chinese companies that trade with the north not to supply prohibited goods. Chinese banks, he added, could choose to clamp down on financial transactions by firms suspected of violating sanctions. But he said the United States may have to convince Beijing that it recognizes its interest in forestalling a collapse of the North Korean economy, and provide greater assurances that it has no intention to back the downfall of the regime in Pyongyang.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.