The UN Security Council on Wednesday unanimously passed a resolution significantly tightening sanctions on North Korea in response to Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile tests in the past two months.

The new sanctions, negotiated between the US and China, North Korea's main ally, are aimed at stopping the country's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

The sanctions are the tightest imposed by the council in 20 years and the toughest to date on the country officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

"The UN Security Council reaffirms its decision that the DPRK shall abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner," the resolution said.

The document, which was presented by the US and was co-sponsored by 52 other UN member states, calls for a complete ban on the sale of all conventional weapons and items that could bolster Pyongyang's military, including small arms and light weapons.

It also requires countries to inspect all North Korean cargo and bans the export of certain minerals from the country.

The resolution prohibits the sale of luxury items, such as luxury watches and recreational sports equipment, to North Korea and imposes travel bans and asset freezes on 16 individuals and 12 entities.

The text also aims to close loopholes the North Korean government has used to evade previous sanctions and stresses that the sanctions "are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population."

US President Barack Obama welcomed the resolution saying it was "a firm, united, and appropriate response by the international community" to Pyongyang's "recent provocations."

"Today, the international community, speaking with one voice, has sent Pyongyang a simple message: North Korea must abandon these dangerous programmes and choose a better path for its people," Obama said.

Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, condemned North Korea's weapons programmes that, she said, the reclusive regime was developing at the expense of the North Korean people.

"The chronic suffering of the people of North Korea is the direct result of the choices made by the DPRK government," Power said.

"The North Korean government would rather grow its nuclear weapons programme than grow its own children."

She said the US was "under no illusion" that the new sanctions would cause the North Korean government to "abruptly abandon" its nuclear weapons programme. However, putting multilateral pressure on countries has proven effective in the past and could succeed in the case of North Korea.

Motohide Yoshikawa, the Japanese ambassador to the UN, urged North Korea to comply with the sanctions and called on all countries to implement all sanctions to show that the international community was unified in condemning North Korea's actions.

"The DPRK must realize that this message is not only coming from the members of the Security Council but from the international community as a whole," Yoshikawa said.

"Let us be clear. No single country in the world supports the nuclear test nor ballistic missile launch by the DPRK."

South Korea also welcomed the new sanctions against its northern neighbour, saying they showed the international community's determination not to tolerate North Korea's nuclear and missile tests any longer.

"We will further strengthen international cooperation so that North Korea will abandon its nuclear program in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner," the foreign ministry said in Seoul.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon too welcomed the adoption of the resolution and said he was committed to "working with all sides to reduce tensions and achieve the verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula," said Stephane Dujarric, Ban's spokesman.

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