UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Thursday for tough new sanctions to punish North Korea for its latest nuclear test, a move that sparked a furious Pyongyang to threaten a nuclear strike against the United States.
The vote by the U.N.’s most powerful body on a resolution drafted by North Korea’s closest ally, China, and the United States sends a powerful message that the international community condemns the ballistic missile and nuclear tests — and repeated violation of Security Council resolutions.
Immediately before the vote, an unidentified spokesman for Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry said the North will exercise its right for “a preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors” because Washington is pushing to start a nuclear war against the North.
It appeared to be the most specific open threat of a nuclear strike by any country against another.
Although North Korea boasts of nuclear bombs and pre-emptive strikes, it is not thought to have mastered the ability to produce a warhead small enough to put on a missile capable of reaching the U.S. It is believed to have enough nuclear fuel, however, for several crude nuclear devices.
The new sanctions are aimed at reining in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs by making it more difficult for Pyongyang to finance and obtain material for these programs, tracking illegal diplomatic activity and intensifying inspections of cargo to and from the country. In a measure targeted at the reclusive nation’s ruling elite, the resolution bans all nations from exporting expensive jewelry, yachts, luxury automobiles and racing cars to the North.
After the 15-0 vote, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters that “taken together, these sanctions will bite and bite hard.”
Responding to Pyongyang’s nuclear strike threat, she said, “North Korea will achieve nothing by continued threats and provocation.”
She urged North Korea’s leaders to heed President Barack Obama’s call to follow the path of peace. If it doesn’t, she said, the Security Council is committed in the resolution to take further measures.
China’s U.N. Ambassador Li Bao Dong said the top priority now is to “bring down the heat” and focus on diplomacy and restarting the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
In North Korea, Army Gen. Kang Pyo Yong told a crowd of tens of thousands that North Korea is ready to fire long-range nuclear-armed missiles at Washington.
“Intercontinental ballistic missiles and various other missiles, which have already set their striking targets, are now armed with lighter, smaller and diversified nuclear warheads and are placed on a standby status,” Kang said. “When we shell (the missiles), Washington, which is the stronghold of evils, …. will be engulfed in a sea of fire.”
The statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman was carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
It accused the U.S. of leading efforts to slap sanctions on North Korea. The statement said the new sanctions would only advance the timing for North Korea to fulfill previous vows to take “powerful second and third countermeasures” against its enemies. It hasn’t elaborated on those measures.
The statement said North Korea “strongly warns the U.N. Security Council not to make another big blunder like the one in the past when it earned the inveterate grudge of the Korean nation by acting as a war servant for the U.S. in 1950.”
North Korea demanded the Security Council immediately dismantle the American-led U.N. Command that’s based in Seoul and move to end the state of war that exists on the Korean Peninsula, which continues six decades after fighting stopped because an armistice, not a peace treaty, ended the war.
In anticipation of the resolution’s adoption, North Korea earlier in the week threatened to cancel the 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War.
North Korean threats have become more common as tensions have escalated following a rocket launch by Pyongyang in December and its third nuclear test on Feb. 12. Both acts defied three Security Council resolutions that bar North Korea from testing or using nuclear or ballistic missile technology and from importing or exporting material for these programs.
The United States and other nations worry that North Korea’s third nuclear test pushed it closer to its goal of gaining nuclear missiles that can reach the U.S. The international community has condemned the regime’s nuclear and missile efforts as threats to regional security and a drain on the resources that could go to North Korea’s largely destitute people.
The U.N. resolution identifies three individuals, one corporation and one organization that will be added to the U.N. sanctions list. The targets include top officials at a company that is the country’s primary arms dealer and main exporter of ballistic missile-related equipment, and a national organization responsible for research and development of missiles and probably nuclear weapons.
The success of a new round of sanctions could depend on enforcement by China, where most of the companies and banks that North Korea is believed to work with are based.
The U.N. resolution condemns the latest nuclear test “in the strongest terms” for violating and flagrantly disregarding council resolutions, bans further ballistic missile launches, nuclear tests “or any other provocation,” and demands that North Korea return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It also condemns all of North Korea’s ongoing nuclear activities, including its uranium enrichment.
But the resolution stresses the council’s commitment “to a peaceful, diplomatic and political solution” and urged a resumption of six-party talks.
According to the resolution, all countries would now be required to freeze financial transactions or services that could contribute to North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs.
To get around financial sanctions, North Koreans have been carrying around large suitcases filled with cash to move illicit funds. The resolution expresses concern that these bulk cash transfers may be used to evade sanctions. It clarifies that the freeze on financial transactions and services that could violate sanctions applies to all cash transfers as well as the cash couriers.
The resolution also bans all countries from providing public financial support for trade deals, such as granting export credits, guarantees or insurance, if the assistance could contribute to the North’s nuclear or missile programs.
It includes what a senior diplomat called unprecedented new travel sanctions that would require countries to expel agents working for sanctioned North Korean companies.
The resolution also requires states to inspect suspect cargo on their territory and prevent any vessel that refuses an inspection from entering their ports. And a new aviation measure calls on states to deny aircraft permission to take off, land or fly over their territory if illicit cargo is suspected to be aboard.