Washington - The United States on Thursday denounced North Korea for threatening a third nuclear test and imposed new sanctions, in an early showdown for President Barack Obama's second administration.
North Korea, which defiantly put a satellite into orbit last month, had responded furiously to a unanimous vote at the United Nations Security Council that expanded the number of entities on an international blacklist.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney criticised the North Korean statement as “needlessly provocative” and said that a nuclear test “would be a significant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions”.
“Further provocations would only increase Pyongyang's isolation, and its continued focus on its nuclear and missile programme is doing nothing to help the North Korean people,” Carney told reporters.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta used similar language and said that the United States was “fully prepared” for a test.
“We remain prepared to deal with any kind of provocation from the North Koreans. But I hope... they determine that in the end, it is better to become a part of the international family,” Panetta told reporters.
Panetta said the United States had “no outward indications” that North Korea would carry out a test imminently but cautioned that much about the totalitarian state was opaque.
“They have the capability, frankly, to conduct these tests in a way that make it very difficult to determine whether or not they are doing it,” Panetta said.
North Korea says that its December 12 launch was a peaceful scientific mission. Outside experts agree that Pyongyang succeeded in putting a satellite in orbit, but US officials charged that the launch was aimed at developing a ballistic missile that could reach the United States.
The United States, supported by Japan and South Korea, spearheaded the UN resolution. China, North Korea's main ally, supported the bid after lengthy negotiations in which it agreed to expand the number of entities under existing restrictions rather than create a new set of sanctions.
Undeterred by North Korea's anger, the United States added names to a blacklist that freezes any US-based assets of designated individuals and groups and makes it a crime for anyone in the United States to assist them.
“North Korea will continue to face isolation if it refuses to take concrete steps to address the concerns of the international community over its nuclear and missile programmes,” the State Department said in a statement.
The State Department blacklisted the Korean Committee for Space Technology, which carries out Pyongyang's rocket launches, and two related individuals.
The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a Hong Kong-based trading company, Leader (Hong Kong) International Trading Ltd, which it accused of assisting shipments for North Korea's main arms dealer.
It also blacklisted two Beijing-based representatives from the Tanchon Commercial Bank, which it said was the financial arm of Korea's Mining Development Trading Corporation, accused of missile transactions with Iran.
The showdown is deja vu for Obama, who took office in 2009 pledging to reach out to US adversaries but four months later was outraged as North Korea carried out its second nuclear test.
The administration has since held out limited hope for changing North Korean policy. It has described its stance as “strategic patience,” with the United States unwilling to make gestures until Pyongyang addresses concerns.
Senator John Kerry, whom Obama named as his next secretary of state, has previously championed engagement with North Korea, including one-on-one talks and food assistance to address reported widespread hunger in the country.
Kerry spoke little about the issue in his confirmation hearing on Thursday but said that the United States should speak out “for the prisoners of gulags in North Korea”.