North Korea Test a Test for Obama

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North Korea’s claim to have conducted the second nuclear detonation in its history may force President Barack Obama to make dealing with the stubborn regime in Pyongyang one of his top foreign policy priorities in the months to come.

Figuring out a fresh approach to dealing with the security threat posed by the isolated regime in Pyongyang won’t be easy.

Obama’s initial response in the hours after North Korea’s state news agency announced a successful test was to emphasize the need for a broad international reaction. “The United States and the international community must take action in response,” Obama told reporters in a Rose Garden statement before heading to Memorial Day ceremonies. “North Korea is not only deepening its own isolation, it’s inviting stronger international pressure.”

But the sanctions already in place against North Korea are so sweeping that many analysts say the U.N. lacks new ways of pressuring the regime to return to multilateral talks, other than to pass a new strongly-worded resolution condemning the test. The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday afternoon to discuss options.

U.S officials gave no indication in the wake of the North Korean announcement that they were planning any major shift in approach toward North Korea. “I think it’s really important…right now to emphasize the diplomatic path,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs, said on CNN’s American Morning. He added that the apparent test showed that Pyongyang was becoming “increasingly belligerent.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke Monday morning with the foreign ministers from Japan and South Korea and planned to speak later in the day with counterparts from Russia and China. “The Secretary stressed the importance of a strong, unified approach to this threat to international peace and security,” State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said. He added that Clinton reassured U.S. allies in the region about the U.S. “commitment to regional security and to our alliances.”

U.S. intelligence agencies were still assessing North Korea’s claim to have conducted a successful test on Monday – a verification process likely to take several more days as analysts sift through seismic and radiation data as well other indicators of a nuclear detonation. Early evidence collected suggested a seismic event larger than Pyongyang’s first test in October 2006.

If a successful test is confirmed with a yield larger than the previous small detonation, it would show that North Korea continues to make progress on improving its nuclear devices, a worrying trend both for the United States and its allies in the region. The first test was seen by some analysts as close to a failure because of its low yield.

Early indications of a larger yield are a possible indication that North Korea is “refining its nuclear warhead knowledge,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Washington. “That could be extremely dangerous.”

The biggest long-term U.S. concern in the region is that North Korea’s progress could prompt Japan and South Korea to activate their own nuclear weapons program, which Washington has long sought to head off by emphasizing the U.S. commitment to their security.

But convincing North Korea to cease work and dismantle its nuclear facilities confounded the Bush administration and, so far, the Obama administration. Until now, Obama has followed a course adopted in the later years of the Bush administration, which dealt with North Korea through so-called six-party talks, the long-running negotiations on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program that also involves China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

Though the talks produced an agreement in principle that North Korea would denuclearize in return for energy assistance and other aid, Pyongyang walked away from the deal before finalizing details. It announced in April after test-firing a ballistic missile that it was pulling out of the talks and resuming its nuclear program.

Victor Cha, a former National Security Council aide during the Bush administration, argued that the North is still angling for diplomatic recognition, including security assurances from the United States, before it will open up to the outside world.

What Pyongyang wants is an assurance that the United States will support and bolster the regime in Pyongyang if it “goes through the dangerous and potentially destabilizing effects of a reform process,” Cha said, in an analysis of the nuclear test distributed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cha predicted that the U.S. was likely to send high level officials to the region to offer further reassurances to allies that they can count on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and he suggested that the U.N. Security Council was likely to pass a resolution calling on countries to fully implement already approved sanctions, a goal that is much more likely in the wake of the latest test. Finally, Cha said, the U.S. and the other participants in the six-party talks (excluding North Korea) would likely meet to discuss next steps.

Even some backers of the six-party talks say that a course change might be necessary if North Korea does not return to the bargaining table over the next year. “It may be time to revisit the six-party process within a year if we do not see some positive results,” said Kimball.

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