The U.N. Security Council condemned North Korea's successful rocket launch on Wednesday and said it will urgently consider "an appropriate response."
Whether that response includes new sanctions against the North, which the United States and its European allies are seeking, depends first and foremost on China, the North's closest ally which has not made its position clear.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei cautioned Wednesday in Beijing that the council's response should be "prudent and moderate and conducive to maintaining stability and avoiding escalation of the situation."
The Security Council said in a brief statement after closed consultations that the launch violated council resolutions adopted after North Korea's nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and a ban on "any launch using ballistic missile technology."
The U.N.'s most powerful body recalled that after the North's failed launch in April it demanded that Pyongyang halt any further launches using ballistic missile technology and expressed its determination to take action in the event of another launch.
"Members of the Security Council will continue consultation on an appropriate response ... given the urgency of the matter," the council statement said.
The successful rocket launch is widely seen as a test that takes North Korea one step closer to being capable of sending a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as California. North Korea officials say the rocket is meant to send a satellite into orbit to study crops and weather patterns, and Pyongyang maintains its right to develop a civilian space program.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said that no matter how the North Koreans choose to describe the launch it violates two council resolutions and shows that the country "is determined to pursue its ballistic missile program without regard for its international obligations."
"The initial statement out of the council is one of the swiftest and strongest — if not the swiftest and strongest — that this council has issued," she said. "Members of the council must now work in a concerted fashion to send a clear message that its violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions have consequences."
She told reporters that the United States will be working with the council, South Korea, Japan and other countries in the international community "to pursue appropriate action."
Rice indicated that there were tough negotiations on Wednesday's press statement.
A council diplomat said China's U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong wanted several words and phrases dropped from the original U.S. draft: the word "rocket" to describe the launch, the phrase "ballistic missile technology," and a reference saying the launch "undermines regional security."
After negotiations among the five permanent council members — the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France — the word "rocket" and the reference to regional security were dropped but the phrase "ballistic missile technology" remained in the statement, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations were private.
The Chinese ambassador also indicated that pressure and sanctions would not be conducive to preserving peace, the diplomat said.
The closed Security Council consultations were also attended by the five nations that will join the council on Jan. 1, including South Korea.
South Korea's U.N. Ambassador Kim Sook told reporters afterward that the launch was "a blatant violation" of council resolutions and "constitutes a very dangerous challenge to the security of the Republic of Korea and the security situation in Korean peninsula and northeast Asia."
He said consultations will continue, and "I believe the Security Council will take appropriate action in swift and robust manner."
Just before the meeting, the United States and its European allies called for the Security Council to deliver a strong reaction to Wednesday's launch.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in Washington that "the international community must work in a concerted fashion to send North Korea a clear message that its violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions have consequences."
The Security Council has imposed two rounds of sanctions against the North, following each of its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Germany's U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig said said, "I think it's time to ... send out a clear message to DPRK sooner rather than later," using the initials of the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said that in his country's view, the council "should react quickly and should react strongly to this provocation."
The British government summoned North Korea's ambassador to the U.K., Hyon Hak Bong, to the Foreign Office to condemn the rocket launch, saying the move threatened regional stability.
Britain's Foreign Office said senior civil servant Simon Fraser urged Pyongyang to immediately re-engage "constructively" with the international community and pointed out that the money spent on the launch could have been used to bring food and modernization to North Korean citizens.
Council diplomats have speculated that existing sanctions could be widened to include financial measures and additional companies and individuals in North Korea. The council could also consider measures that would lead to more robust implementation of sanctions, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private.
The Security Council in 2006 imposed an arms embargo on heavy weapons, a ban on material that could be used in missiles or weapons of mass destruction and a ban on luxury goods favoured by North Korea's ruling elite. It also ordered an asset freeze and travel ban on companies and individuals involved in the North's nuclear and weapons programs.
In 2009, the council toughened the arms embargo and authorized searches of North Korean cargo at airports, seaports, on land and on the high seas if there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that the shipment contains banned arms or weapons or the material to make them. It calls on all countries to prevent financial institutions or individuals in their countries from providing financing or resources that could contribute to North Korea's weapons-of-mass-destruction and missile programs — but it does not require that they do so.