The United Nations Security Council voted on Thursday to impose further sanctions on North Korea for its third nuclear test, unanimously approving a resolution that the United States negotiated with China. This comes shortly after North Korea's threats to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the US. In response to the passage of the resolution, the North said it was voiding all non-agression and denuclearisation agreements with South Korea, and was terminating the North-South hotline.
Implications for US, S Korea, China
Some, such as State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, have stated that such hostile rhetoric is not uncommon for North Korea, but its threats have to be taken seriously. According to a commentary by Reuters, taking North Korea at its word for "good" behaviour is close to impossible, with broken pledges filling twenty years of nuclear diplomacy.
However, the North has a better record of following through its threats. South Korean officials on their part said they are now on the alert for any possible attack. While North Korea's worst threats -- including its repeated warning to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" -- have not occurred, others have been carried out, such as the three nuclear tests. Additionally, in 2010, after repeated threats against South Korea, the North struck out in two deadly attacks against a South Korean warship and an island, resulting in 50 fatalities. There is growing discussion among US policy-makers that North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un is using the missile and nuclear tests to consolidate his leadership within the military.
Nonetheless, actually launching a nuclear attack against the US is not possible without warhead miniaturization, which would require the North to conduct further nuclear and missile tests, according to a US Congressional Research Service report. Military experts have dismissed this particular threat as bluster.
Observers add that North Korea is acting out in response to tighter sanctions, something it has typically done in the past when it does not get its way. It may also be trying to prod the US back to the negotiating table.
Even China has shown increasing frustration with its ally's destabilising behaviour. Experts have suggested that China's co-endorsement of the latest UN resolution -- a move seen by many as uncommon -- may indicate that China's North Korea policy may be shifting from coddling the country towards greater assertiveness. However, China's enforcement of sanctions has yet to be seen, and whether China would willingly go beyond the scope of the sanctions to cut off fuel shipments and commercial trade that keeps the isolated country afloat is uncertain.
Report: New Sanctions on North Korea Pass in Unified UN Vote [New York Times, 7 Mar 2013]
Analysis: Behind North Korea bluster, a record of troubling actions [Reuters, 7 Mar 2013]