The UN Security Council on Friday expanded targeted sanctions against North Korea after its repeated missile tests, adopting the first such resolution agreed by the United States and Pyongyang's only major ally China since US President Donald Trump took office.
The Trump administration has been pressing China aggressively to rein in its reclusive neighbor, warning that all options are on the table if Pyongyang persists with its nuclear and missile development programs.
The United States has struggled to slow those programs, which have become a security priority given Pyongyang's vow to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland.
"The United States will continue to seek a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to this situation," US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the council after the vote.
But she added: "Beyond diplomatic and financial consequences, the United States remains prepared to counteract North Korean aggression through other means, if necessary."
Adding names to the UN blacklist—a global travel ban and asset freeze—was the minimum sanctions measures the Security Council could have taken and comes after five weeks of negotiations between Washington and Beijing.
"The Security Council is sending a clear message to North Korea today—stop firing ballistic missiles or face the consequences," Haley said.
The resolution, adopted unanimously by the 15-member council, sanctions four entities, including the Koryo Bank and Strategic Rocket Force of the Korean People's Army, and 14 people, including the head of Pyongyang's overseas spying operations.
North Korea's Koryo Bank handles overseas transactions for Office 38, a shadowy body that manages the private slush funds of the North Korean leadership, according to a South Korean government database.
'A critical window'
The measures adopted on Friday could have been agreed by the council's North Korea sanctions committee behind closed doors, but Washington convinced China to back a public vote on the blacklist, amplifying the council's unhappiness with Pyongyang's defiance of a UN ban on ballistic missile launches.
The UN Security Council first imposed sanctions on Pyongyang in 2006 over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs and has ratcheted up the measures in response to five nuclear tests and two long-range missile launches. North Korea is threatening a sixth nuclear test.
"There is a critical window of opportunity for the nuclear issue of the peninsula to come back to the right track of seeking a settlement through dialogue and negotiations," Chinese UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi told the council. "It is incumbent on all parties concerned to exercise restraint and to do more to help ease the tension and build mutual trust."
He again proposed a simultaneous freeze of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and South Korea and the United States' joint military exercises. Russia said the suggestion merits "serious consideration."
Haley said: "We want a negotiated solution, but North Korea must fulfill its basic obligations by first stopping all ballistic missile launches and nuclear weapons testing and taking concrete steps towards getting rid of its nuclear weapons program."
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Security Council on April 28 that it needed to act before North Korea does. Just hours after the meeting—chaired by Tillerson during his first visit to the United Nations as the top US diplomat—Pyongyang launched yet another ballistic missile.
Within days the United States proposed to China that the Security Council strengthen sanctions on North Korea over its repeated missile launches. Traditionally, the United States and China have negotiated new sanctions before involving the other council members.
Pyongyang has launched several more ballistic missiles since then, including a short-range missile on Monday that landed in the sea off its east coast.
Diplomats said it appeared China was still only likely to consider additional strong new UN sanctions measures, such as an oil embargo, a ban on Pyongyang's airline or tougher economic sanctions, if North Korea conducted a long-range missile launch or another nuclear test.
The last round of complex sanctions imposed by the Security Council took three months to negotiate following Pyongyang's fifth nuclear test in September. Those measures aimed to cut North Korea's annual export revenue by a quarter.
China has also been infuriated by the US deployment of an advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea, saying it was a threat to its security and would do nothing to ease tension with Pyongyang.
Security Council veto power Russia backed the UN measures on Friday. Moscow's support had been unclear after the United States imposed its own sanctions on Thursday on Russian firms for their support of North Korea's weapons programs.
"This step is something that is very puzzling and deeply disappointing," Deputy Russian UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said of the US sanctions amid battered US-Russia relations.
"Instead of trying to work through the bilateral backlog in our work, Washington is doing exactly the opposite and undertaking unfriendly steps, which make it more difficult to normalize our dialogue and make it more difficult to cooperate in international affairs," he told the Security Council.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday voiced support for the unanimous UN decision and called on North Korea to refrain from repeated nuclear tests and missile launches.
'Clear and present danger'
Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stated Saturday that North Korea's accelerated push to acquire a nuclear-armed missile capable of threatening the United States is incredibly alarming.
Speaking at an international security conference in Singapore, Mattis said the Trump administration is encouraged by China's renewed commitment to working with the US and others to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons. He also said he thinks China, which is North Korea's closest ally, ultimately will see it as a liability.
China blocked tough new sanctions against North Korea that the United States pushed in the UN Security Council on Friday. However, the Security Council did vote unanimously to add 15 individuals and four entities linked to the North's nuclear and missile programs to a UN sanctions blacklist.
In his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mattis sought to balance his hopeful comments on China with sharp criticism of what he called Beijing's disregard for international law by its "indisputable militarization" of artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
"We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo" in the South China Sea, he said.
Overall, Mattis' speech struck a positive, hopeful tone for cooperation and peace in the Asia-Pacific region, where he and his predecessors have made it a priority to nurture and strengthen alliances and partnerships.
"While competition between the US and China, the world's two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable," he said. "Our two countries can and do cooperate for mutual benefit. We will pledge to work closely with China where we share common cause."
He was, however, unrelentingly critical of North Korea, a politically and economically isolated nation whose leaders have long viewed the United States as a military threat, in part because of periodic US military exercises with South Korea, which the North sees as preparations for attacks aimed at destroying its ruling elite.
He called North Korea an "urgent military threat." In a question-and-answer session with his audience of national security experts from across the globe, Mattis was asked whether the US might attack the North pre-emptively and without warning South Koreans in advance.
"We're working diplomatically, economically, we're trying to exhaust all possible alternatives to avert this race for a nuclear weapon in violation of ... the United Nations' restrictions on North Korea's activities," he said.
"We want to stop this. We consider it urgent," he added.
The US has about 28,500 troops permanently based in South Korea, a defense treaty ally. In his speech, Mattis said the US will stick to its treaty commitments to South Korea.
"North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is not new, but the regime has increased the pace and scope of its efforts," he said, alluding to the North's series of nuclear device tests in recent years and an accelerated pace of missile tests seemingly aimed at building a missile with enough range to hit the US.
"While the North Korean regime has a long record of murder of diplomats, of kidnapping, killing of sailors, and criminal activity, its nuclear weapons program is maturing as a threat to all," Mattis said, adding, "As a matter of national security, the United States regards the threat from North Korea as a clear and present danger."
Mattis noted that last week the Pentagon conducted what it called a successful test of its missile defense system, which is being developed mainly with North Korea in mind. An interceptor launched from coastal California soared over the Pacific on Tuesday, scoring what officials called a direct hit on a target missile fired from a Pacific test range. It was the first time the system had been tested against a missile of intercontinental range.
Mattis used the Shangri-La Dialogue to reiterate his call for international cooperation against violent Islamic extremist groups, such as ISIS, which he said are trying to gain ground in Southeast Asia.