China and Russia on Thursday rejected a U.S.-led United Nations proposal to tighten sanctions on North Korea’s missile launches, exposing divisions that Western envoys fear could be exploited by Pyongyang.
The U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution would reduce the amount of oil North Korea can legally import as punishment for Wednesday’s ICBM test.
The resolution was supported by 13 other members of the Security Council, although some U.S. allies quietly wondered whether Washington should go ahead with the vote amid firm opposition from Beijing and Moscow.
China is North Korea’s closest ally, while Russia, whose relations with the West have been at a standstill over its invasion of Ukraine, said they would prefer a non-binding statement rather than a new resolution against Pyongyang.
China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, said the United States “should not unilaterally emphasize the implementation of sanctions, but should also strive to promote a political solution”.
He warned that sanctions would have “escalating” and humanitarian consequences for North Korea, one of the world’s most closed societies that recently declared a Covid-19 outbreak.
Zhang claimed that the United States wanted the resolution to fail to “add fuel to the fire” as part of its broader effort to pressure China.
“The crux of the matter,” he said, “is whether they want to put the Korean Peninsula issue on the chessboard of what they call an Indo-Pacific strategy.”
Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia accused the United States of ignoring North Korea’s call to cease “hostile activities”.
“It seems that our American and other Western colleagues are suffering what amounts to a writer’s block. Apart from the introduction of new sanctions, they don’t seem to be responding to the crisis situation,” he said.
President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly expressed its willingness to talk to North Korea without preconditions.
It has shown little interest in working-level talks in North Korea, where leader Kim Jong Un held three high-profile meetings with Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.
– North Korea ‘daring’ –
In 2017, the UN Security Council unanimously voted three times to step up pressure on North Korea ahead of Trump’s engagement with Kim Jong Un, and China and Russia were also outraged by nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
While talks are still ongoing, the United States says North Korea has clearly violated a 2017 resolution that called for more consequences if Pyongyang fired another ICBM.
North Korea fired three missiles on Wednesday, including what could be its largest intercontinental ballistic missile, hours after Biden’s visit to the region, the United States and South Korea said.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said 23 missiles were launched this year, posing a “threat to the peace and security of the entire international community”.
“The Security Council’s restraint and silence have not eliminated or even reduced the threat. If anything, North Korea has been emboldened by the Security Council’s inaction,” she said, referring to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The United States will take unilateral action against North Korea, including further sanctions, she said.
Envoys from Britain, France and South Korea have expressed concern that North Korea will proceed with its nuclear test, which would be its first since 2017.
French ambassador Nicolas de Riviere said: “Using the veto would protect the North Korean regime and give it full authority to fire more weapons.”
The U.S.-drafted resolution reduces the amount of civilian oil North Korea can legally import from 4 million barrels per year to 3 million barrels (525,000 to 393,750 tons) and similarly reduces the level of refined oil.
The U.S. moved forward in the final days of its Security Council presidency in May, arguing that inaction would be worse, despite knowing objections from China and Russia, said a U.N. ambassador who asked not to be named.
“Their calculations,” the ambassador said, “we can’t let this constant testing go on without a response.”