UNITED NATIONS, March 20 (Reuters) - The United States, China and Russia argued during a United Nations Security Council meeting on Monday over who was to blame for spurring North Korea's dozens of ballistic missile launches and development of a nuclear weapons program.
The 15-member council met over what Pyongyang said was the launch on Thursday of its largest Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions for its missile and nuclear programs since 2006.
China and Russia blamed joint military drills by the United States and South Korea for provoking Pyongyang while Washington accuses Beijing and Moscow of emboldening North Korea by shielding it from more sanctions.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres "remains deeply concerned over the divisions that have prevented the international community from acting on this matter," a senior U.N. official said at the meeting.
Russia's deputy U.N. Ambassador Anna Evstigneeva described the U.S. and South Korean military activity as "unprecedented," while China's deputy U.N. Ambassador Geng Shuang questioned whether they were defensive drills and blamed them for heightening tensions.
"These exercises are long standing, they are routine. They are purely defensive in nature ... The United States harbors no hostile intent toward the DPRK," said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, using its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
For the past several years the council has been divided over how to deal with Pyongyang. Russia and China, veto powers along with the United States, Britain and France, have said more sanctions will not help and want such measures to be eased. Geng said it was intended as a goodwill gesture to try and create favorable conditions for a detente.
Thomas-Greenfield said lifting U.N. sanctions would reward Pyongyang "for doing nothing to comply with Security Council resolutions." She accused Pyongyang of depriving North Koreans of needed humanitarian assistance.
Russia and China also again raised nuclear concerns over a security pact known as AUKUS that will see Australia develop a nuclear-powered submarine program with the United States and Britain.
The United States and Britain both rejected their concerns and told the council that AUKUS does not violate the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty.
"North Korea's illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs violate multiple Council resolutions. So there's simply no comparison to the AUKUS," Britain's deputy U.N. Ambassador James Kariuki told the council.