China and Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution sponsored by the United States on Thursday that would have imposed tough new sanctions on North Korea for its spate of intercontinental ballistic missile launches that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons.
The vote in the 15-member Security Council was 13-2 and marked a first serious division among the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N.'s most powerful body on a North Korea sanctions resolution.
A united Security Council imposed sanctions after North Korea's first nuclear test explosion in 2006 and tightened them over the years in a total of 10 resolutions seeking – so far unsuccessfully – to rein in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and cut off funding.
But China and Russia told the Security Council after the vote that they oppose more sanctions, stressing that what's needed now is renewed dialogue between North Korea and the United States.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield expressed disappointment but not surprise at the vote, calling North Korea's 23 ballistic missile launches this year, including six ICBMs after a five-year suspension, "a grave threat to international peace and security."
"The world faces a clear and present danger from the DPRK," she said, using the initials of the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and citing its continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
In the last sanctions resolution adopted by the council in December 2017, members committed to further restricting petroleum exports to North Korea if it conducted a ballistic missile launch capable of reaching intercontinental ranges.
Before the vote, Thomas-Greenfield urged the council to fulfill its commitment and act against the North's ICBM launches and its escalating nuclear program.
China's U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun blamed the United States for not reciprocating North Korea's "positive initiatives" during talks with the Trump administration in 2018 and 2019.
He said it's the U.S.' responsibility now to resume its dialogue with Pyongyang and find a political solution to the situation on the Korean Peninsula, where the 1950-53 war between North Korea and South Korea stopped with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
"The situation and peninsula has developed to what it is today thanks primarily to the flip-flop of U.S. policies and failure to uphold the results of previous dialogues," he said.
Faced with "persistent tension" on the Korean peninsula, Zhang said, "China has been calling on all parties to exercise calm and restraint and to desist from actions that could increase tension and lead to miscalculations." He said North Korea faces the harshest sanctions regime and instead of imposing new sanctions China and Russia have proposed lifting some sanctions to improve the dire humanitarian situation of North Koreans.
Earlier, Zhang alluded to the U.S. "pivot to Asia" aimed at countering the rise of China as an economic and military power and America's most significant competitor.
"We do not want to see anyone make use of the DPRK situation or the Korean Peninsula situation as a card for their strategic or geopolitical agenda," he said. "We are completely against any attempt to make northeastern Asia a battlefield or to create confrontations or tensions there."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said Moscow had repeatedly told the U.S. that new sanctions against the DPRK were "a path to a dead end," and had also stressed "the ineffectiveness and the inhumanity of further strengthening the sanctions pressure on Pyongyang."
"The problems of security in the region, which also directly affect Russia, cannot be resolved through primitive and blunt means that have a direct impact on the population," he said. "Over the past year, we are seeing only a worsening of the situation on the [Korean] peninsula."
Nebenzia said Western nations have shifted the blame to North Korean authorities while completely ignoring Pyongyang's repeated appeals to the United States to stop "its hostile activity which will open the path for dialogue."
Thomas-Greenfield, the U.N. envoy, retorted that it is the Security Council's inaction that is "certainly enabling" North Korea's escalation of its weapons programs. And she countered that the United States has made "serious, sustained efforts, publicly and privately, to pursue diplomacy with the DPRK without preconditions."
The U.S. and British envoys also expressed concern that North Korea will resume nuclear testing.
Britain's deputy ambassador James Kariuki warned that two members seeking to keep the council silent will only embolden North Korea.
Standing with the ambassadors of Japan and South Korea after the meeting, Thomas-Greenfield read a joint statement calling the vetoes "dangerous" and saying they undermine not only the Security Council's previous resolutions which Russia and China have committed to but "our collective security."
The three countries vowed not to remain silent and pledged to work together to protect the region and the world "from the DPRK's continued and unprovoked escalations."
Wednesday's announcement of the vote came hours after North Korea's latest launches and followed Tuesday's conclusion of U.S. President Joe Biden's Asia trip aimed at reinforcing the U.S. pivot. It included stops in South Korea and Japan, where he reaffirmed America's commitment to defend both allies in the face of the North's nuclear threat.
Wednesday's launches were the 17th round of DPRK missile firings this year. Experts have said North Korea wants to move ahead with its push to expand its arsenal and apply more pressure on its rivals to wrest sanctions relief and other concessions.
The resolution voted on Thursday would have reduced exports of crude oil to North Korea from 4 million barrels a year to 3 million barrels, and exports of refined petroleum products from 500,000 barrels a year to 375,000 barrels. It would also have banned the North's exports of mineral fuels, mineral oils, mineral waxes, clocks, watches and their parts.
The defeated resolution would also have imposed a global asset freeze on one individual and three companies including North Korea's Lazarus Group which reportedly engages in "cyberespionage, data theft, monetary heists and destructive malware operations" against government, military, financial, manufacturing, publishing, media and entertainment institutions as well as shipping companies and critical infrastructure.
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