UN passes new North Korea sanctions

The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed tougher sanctions against North Korea today, hours after Pyongyang threatened a possible “preemptive nuclear attack.”

China, North Korea’s key ally, could have used its veto power to block the sanctions. Instead, after weeks of negotiating, it signed on to the final draft.

Leading up to the vote, Pyongyang ratcheted up its bellicose rhetoric. A spokesman for the North Korean foreign ministry suggested the United States “is set to light a fuse for a nuclear war.” As a result, North Korea “will exercise the right to a preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors and to defend the supreme interests of the country,” the country said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Despite the strong language, analysts say North Korea is years away from having the technology necessary to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile and aim it accurately at a target. And, analysts say, North Korea is unlikely to seek a direct military conflict with the United States, preferring instead to try to gain traction through threats and the buildup of its military deterrent.

The rhetoric came not only in advance of the U.N. vote, but also as military drills take place on either side of the heavily armed border that divides the two Koreas.

“These sanctions will bite, and bite hard,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said after the vote.

Latest UN resolution with more sanctions against North Korea

The US has formally introduced a resolution at the UN Security Council to authorize more sanctions against North Korea in response to its recent controversial nuclear test.

As a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power, China can strongly influence the body’s decisions and has previously resisted strong sanctions on the Kim regime, which it props up economically. The two communist countries have been close allies since China supported the North with materiel and troops in the Korean War.

Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, suggests that while the resolution will probably not be too onerous, the fact that China went along with another U.N. sanctions measure against North Korea reflects the growing anger and disillusionment that Beijing feels toward its supposed ally.

“Kim Jong Un is now paying the price for going ahead with a nuclear test despite Chinese warnings not to create trouble during the political transition that has been under way in Beijing the past year,” Fitzpatrick said.

“The real question, though, is the degree to which China will be willing to implement the U.N. sanctions and to impose punishment of its own. A sharp drop in Chinese grain sales to North Korea in January may be a sign that China’s support for U.N. sanctions is more than just a symbolic punishment.”

US signals time for negotiations with North Korea?

North Korea threatened Tuesday to nullify the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953, citing U.S.-led international moves to impose new sanctions against it over its recent nuclear test, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

Meanwhile, a draft U.S. resolution to authorize more sanctions against North Korea in response to its recent controversial nuclear test was formally introduced today at the U.N. Security Council by U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice.

Pyongyang continues to make “belligerent and reckless moves that threaten the region, their neighbors and now, directly, the United States of America,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a CNN interview. “It’s very easy for Kim Jong Un to prove his good intent here also. Just don’t fire the next missile. Don’t have the next test. Just say you’re ready to talk,” said Kerry, speaking on the last full day of his first international trip as the nation’s top diplomat.

“Rather than threaten to abrogate and threaten to move in some new direction, the world would be better served” if Kim took some action to engage in legitimate dialogue, Kerry said. “Our preference is not to brandish threats to each other. It’s to get to the table” to negotiate, he said.

Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, characterized North Korea’s threat to nullify the 1953 armistice as “largely bluster,” pointing out that North Korea has “broken the armistice many times, most recently in 2010 by sinking a South Korean corvette and shelling a South Korean-populated island.”

But, he added, “the threat does point to more trouble to come from the recalcitrant hermit kingdom. Things are going to get worse before they get better.”

A glimpse into the North Korean soul

So bad boy basketball star Dennis Rodman left Pyongyang Friday after stunning the diplomatic world with his basketball diplomacy. Rodman upstages the US State Dept, a US Governor and a top Google executive by being granted exclusive downtime with Kim Jong-un!  After watching an exhibition game with a laughing Kim, dining and drinking with him, even hugging the regime strongman, Rodman offered his home-boy homily and praise for Kim and his father and grandfather.

No other American as far as anyone can tell has met with Kim since he assumed command of North Korea following his father’s death in 2011. (And despite his access to Kim, apparently Rodman will not be debriefed by American diplomats?)

Complicated North Korean politics aside, this encounter does makes one wonder what the North Koreans are really like as people. Simply people. Here’s an interesting perspective by Illya Szilak, written after a visit to the country:

“I joined hundreds of intrepid tourists heading to Pyongyang for Kim Il-sung’s centenary birthday celebration. Most were seeking adventure. I was doing research for my next novel, which uses the ideological conflict between the U.S. and North Korea to explore the construction of national identity.

“Every nation has its mythology – a reason why it is uniquely destined for greatness. For many in the United States, that reason is our Constitution and the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

“The North Koreans also believe in their country’s greatness. Central to their myth is the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung and Juche, his philosophy of militant self-reliance. In North Korea, leader-worship is not a cult of personality – it’s a full-fledged religion. Images of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il are everywhere. Going to the annual art show is like following the Stations of the Cross: Kim Il-sung as a child, Kim Il-sung fighting the Japanese, Kim Jong-il at the factory with the workers. Around the country, their words – common-sense platitudes like “Plant more crops, harvest more rice” – are inscribed like the Ten Commandments on two-ton slabs of rock.

“Judging from her offhand remarks, our local guide, Miss Song, is a true believer. When I question her in private about the repressiveness of the government, she flatly disagrees. Intelligent, educated, friendly, she is not a robot, and she certainly doesn’t act like she is afraid. Trying to put myself in her place, I imagine what it must be like to have your country occupied for 40 years, to be forced to speak another language, even to take a different name. Then the oppressor (Japan) leaves, and two other countries (the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.) come in, and literally divide your country in two.

“Touring the demilitarized zone, with its acres of barbed wire and machine-gun-armed soldiers, I remember that the U.S and North Korea are still at war. No peace agreement was signed, only an armistice. Millions of Koreans died compared with some 36,000 Americans, and every form of industry in North Korea was completely destroyed. The U.S. also contemplated the use of nuclear weapons at the time.

“Why did the U.S. [military troops remain stationed in South Korea] after World War Two? Did we suddenly realize that Korea was a sovereign nation and decide to help the fledgling democracy in the South (which was not actually a democracy)? Did we feel guilty that in 1918 we rebuffed Korean nationalists, who, inspired by our own President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, asked for help against Japan? Or did we think that Korea, situated between China and the Soviet Union, was too strategically and economically important to govern itself?

“Miss Song’s desire to believe in a certain version of history is no different from my own.

“The difference is that I have access to information and experiences that might contradict it, and most North Koreans do not. Without Internet or alternative news sources, unable to travel freely, and with little or no interaction with foreigners, the average person simply has no grounds to question the system, or hope for anything else.”

Dennis Rodman: Second attention-grabbing American visit to North Korea

Ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman ‘s trip to North Korea is the second attention-grabbing American visit this year to North Korea. Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, made a four-day trip in January to Pyongyang, but did not meet the North Korean leader, like Rodman did.

dennis rodman kim jong un

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and former NBA star Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and U.S. players in an exhibition basketball game at an arena in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 28, 2013.

In fact, Rodman called leader Kim Jong Un an “awesome guy” and said his father and grandfather were “great leaders.” “He’s proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong Un. “Guess what, I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”

Rodman traveled to Pyongyang with three members of the professional Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, VICE correspondent Ryan Duffy and a production crew to shoot an episode on North Korea for a new weekly HBO series. Rodman watched a basketball game with the authoritarian leader Thursday and later drank and dined on sushi with him. Kim and Rodman apparently “bonded” and chatted in English, though Kim primarily spoke in Korean through a translator.

Kim, a diehard basketball fan, told the former Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls star that he hoped the visit would break the ice between the United States and North Korea, said Shane Smith, founder of the New York-based VICE media company. Kim said he hoped sports exchanges would promote “mutual understanding between the people of the two countries,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.