UNITED NATIONS - Key Security Council nations reached agreement Saturday on a statement that would condemn North Korea's rocket launch and toughen U.N. sanctions against the reclusive communist nation.
The five permanent veto-wielding members - the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France - and Japan reached agreement after Tokyo backed down from a demand that the Security Council adopt a new resolution, the strongest response the U.N.'s most powerful body can give.
They distributed the text of the proposed presidential statement to the nine other council members, who must now consult their capitals. Libya's deputy U.N. ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi said he expects the council to meet again Monday.
A presidential statement is considered a weaker reaction by the council, and while the U.S. insists it is legally binding, others do not.
Nonetheless, the current draft contains stronger language and demands than many observers predicted.
The statement "condemns" North Korea's April 5 launch, without specifying whether it was a missile or a satellite. It makes clear that the launch was a violation of a Security Council resolution, adopted after the North conducted a nuclear test in 2006, which bans any missile tests by the country.
The statement also calls for expanded sanctions under the 2006 resolution, which ordered a financial freeze on assets belonging to companies or organizations engaged in supporting North Korean programs related to nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction - and banned specific goods used in those programs.
The draft asks the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea to report to the council by April 24 on the companies, items, and technologies to be added to the list.
The draft also demands that North Korea not conduct any further launch.
North Korea carried out the launch in defiance of intense international pressure, claiming it had launched a satellite which is allowed under a U.N. space treaty. The United States, Japan and South Korea claim North Korea was really testing long-range missile technology.
"This is a strong and legally binding outcome of the Security Council which meets all of the objectives that we have," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said after the full council meeting.
"What the council can do and we hope will do through the adoption of this statement, is send a very clear message to North Korea that what they have done under the guise of a satellite launch is in fact a violation of their obligations, and indeed that there are consequences for such actions," she said.
North Korea has warned that any move to censure it at the U.N. could prompt its withdrawal from six-party talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear program which involve China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.
In the draft statement, the Security Council expresses support for the six-party talks and "calls for their early resumption." It also expressed the council's desire "for a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the situation."
Britain's U.N. Ambassador John Sawers called the proposed draft "a formal and binding position of the council."
But former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, who served during the Bush administration, insisted that presidential statements are not legally binding, noting that U.S. State Department lawyers only consider resolutions adopted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which is militarily enforceable, legally binding.
"A resolution is an action. A presidential statement is an opinion," he told The Associated Press.