UNITED NATIONS -- The United States clashed with China and Russia on Wednesday over their strong opposition to the U.S. push for new U.N. sanctions on North Korea over its missile and nuclear programs.
The debate at a U.N. Security Council meeting put a spotlight on the enormous gap between the two sides and the near impossible task the Biden administration faces in trying to get the council to adopt a new sanctions resolution. China and Russia both have veto power and say they want to see new talks and not more punishment for the North.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, this month’s council president who called the meeting, said the Security Council can’t wait until North Korea conducts “additional provocative, illegal, dangerous acts -- like a nuclear test.”
She said the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea -- the country’s official name -- has conducted 17 ballistic missile launches so far this year. Assistant U.N. Secretary-General Khaled Khiari told the council that North Korea “has launched more missiles in the past five months than in the prior two years combined.”
The council imposed sanctions after the North’s first nuclear test explosion in 2006 and tightened them over the years seeking to rein in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and cut off funding.
But Thomas-Greenfield said that for the last four years, two members -- a clear reference to China and Russia -- “have blocked every attempt” to enforce the sanctions and update the list of individuals, companies and other entities subject to asset freezes and travel bans.
In the sanctions resolution adopted in December 2017, the Security Council committed to further restricting petroleum exports to North Korea if it conducted a ballistic missile launch capable of reaching intercontinental ranges, Thomas-Greenfield said. This year, North Korea has launched at least three ICBMs, and the council has remained silent, she said.
A proposed U.S. draft resolution would halve oil exports, among other sanctions.
The U.S. ambassador said the council needs to speak “with a strong and unified voice” to condemn North Korea's behavior.
Thomas-Greenfield told reporters last week the U.S. would like the council to vote on the resolution in May, and she urged members on Wednesday to support the measure and show that the council will respond “to threats to international peace and security and to blatant violations of its resolutions.”
Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun expressed regret that the United States “remains enamored superstitiously of the magic power of sanctions.”
He said that the direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea in 2018 produced positive results and a de-escalation of the situation on the Korean peninsula, but that the United States created the current impasse by not reciprocating to what he said were Pyongyang’s positive initiatives.
Zhang said the U.S. “holds the key to breaking the deadlock” and should take “concrete actions” to respond positively to North Korea’s concerns and create conditions for an early resumption of dialogue.
The U.S. draft resolution “is centered on furthering sanctions, which is not an appropriate way to address the current situation,” he said.
Asked by reporters later how China will vote on the U.S. draft resolution, Zhang replied: “We have proposed other options, and we have told them that we will not support the current U.S. draft resolution.”
Last fall China and Russia circulated a draft resolution urging the Security Council to end a host of sanctions on North Korea, and Zhang expressed hope Wednesday that council members will give “serious consideration” to it.
Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Anna Evstigneeva, echoed Zhang’s opposition to new sanctions.
“Unfortunately, so far the council has only tightened restrictions ignoring the positive signals from North Korea,” she said.
She expressed regret that over the last four years the council didn’t react to North Korea’s dismantling of its nuclear test site and compliance with the moratorium on nuclear testing. She said there is a need for political and diplomatic solutions to peacefully resolve the issues on the Korean peninsula.
Khiari, the U.N. assistant secretary-general, told the council that “there are indications of resumed construction activities at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which was declared shut down in 2018.”
Zhang said Beijing wants to avoid a new nuclear test explosion, “so that’s why we do not want to have additional sanctions that might force one of the parties to take more proactive” measures.