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North Korean Test Puts More Pressure on Obama

WASHINGTON, Feb 13 2013 (IPS) - Tuesday’s nuclear test by North Korea poses major new questions about the sustainability of President Barack Obama’s first-term policy of “strategic patience” in dealing with Pyongyang.

Both hawks and doves have jumped on the underground test, which appears to have had a greater explosive force than the North’s two previous tests in 2006 and 2009, respectively, as grounds for substantially changing Washington’s approach.

“The nuclear explosion proves that American policy has been a failure and that a new path is needed,” said Michael Auslin of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), who called for much more aggressive efforts to prevent Pyongyang from exporting weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or missile technology and punishing China if fails to cooperate.

“If North Korea keeps testing like this, it will start a debate in South Korea and Japan about whether they should build their own nuclear weapons,” said Cirincione.

Washington, he said, should be “declaring that containment is our new policy and threatening overwhelming retaliation to kill the Kim (Jong-un) regime should North Korea use any of its WMD on us or our allies.”

“I think the policy of strategic patience – of not talking to them – has failed,” agreed Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a prominent nuclear-disarmament group. “For most of the last 12 years, during which North Korea held four long-range missile tests and three nuclear tests, we haven’t talked to them. When we’ve talked to them, they haven’t tested.

“There should be another round of sanctions and more pressure, but don’t expect that that’s going to work,” he told IPS. “After a decent interval, the U.S. should reach out to North Korea and engage in direct talks. We’ve got to provide them an off-ramp, or else they’re just going to keep doing this.”

In the wake of Tuesday’s test, which provoked stern protests from the major powers, including China, North Korea’s closest ally, Obama, who was expected to announce new plans to unilaterally reduce Washington’s nuclear arsenal at his annual State of the Union Address Tuesday night, denounced Pyongyang’s action as “highly provocative” and called for “swift and credible action by the international community” to punish it.

After condemning the test as a “clear threat to international peace and security,” the U.N. Security Council was meeting Tuesday afternoon to begin working out specific measures to be taken against Pyongyang.

“These provocations do not make North Korea more secure,” said Obama, who later spoke with outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to reaffirm Washington’s defence commitment.

“Far from achieving its stated goal of becoming a strong and prosperous nation, North Korea has instead increasingly isolated and impoverished its people through its ill-advised pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.”

Since taking office, Obama has pursued a policy of “strategic patience”, a policy that has conditioned any substantial move toward normalisation of bilateral relations on concrete steps by Pyongyang to suspend and eventually abandon its nuclear-weapons programme.

Last February, the administration thought it had achieved a breakthrough when Pyongyang agreed to suspend its long-range missile tests in exchange for 240,000 tonnes of U.S. food aid.

But just a few weeks later, the North announced plans to launch a satellite into space using a multi-stage rocket. Although Washington warned that such a launch would be considered a violation of the accord, the regime went ahead with the launch – by all accounts a failure – anyway, effectively shelving hopes for further progress.

Last December, Pyongyang launched another multi-stage rocket that successfully put an 80-kg satellite into orbit, an achievement that provoked greater concern here because it demonstrated a much greater advance in mastering inter-continental ballistic missile technology than had been anticipated.

The action drew strong condemnation and additional sanctions by the U.N. Security Council, including China.

Since North Korea suggested last month that it was preparing a nuclear test as well, both the U.S. and China, as well as the other members of the Six-Party Talks (Japan, South Korea, and Russia) warned that it would result in additional sanctions.

But Pyongyang rejected those warnings, vowing instead to “boost and strengthen our defensive military power including nuclear deterrence.”

Washington and its allies have so thoroughly sanctioned North Korea for its “bad behaviour” that it has very few ways to punish it short of war. Indeed, the only serious source of external pressure on Pyongyang at this point is China, which provides it with fuel and other vital assistance.

But while North Korea’s continuing defiance of China’s appeals not to test and to instead return to the Six-Party Talks has clearly taxed Beijing patience, Beijing remains more worried that cutting off its support could result in the regime’s collapse.

“China is in a very difficult position at this point,” noted Alan Romberg, a Northeast Asia specialist at the Stimson Center. “On the one hand, its long-standing strategic calculation remains unchanged: they don’t want to see Korea re-unified under the leadership of Seoul closely allied to the United States. I don’t think anything has changed about that.

“On the other hand, the way China handled this before the test and after it has been noteworthy. They have been very outspoken in opposition. They even announced publicly that they had called in the North Korean ambassador (to receive a protest),” he noted. “You have a new leadership in China, and it seems there’s a level of impatience that wasn’t as obvious as before.”

That impatience may not only have to do with Pyongyang’s defiance of its wishes, but also growing concerns in Beijing that if North Korea continues on its current path, it risked destabilising the region, as well as itself.

“If North Korea keeps testing like this, it will start a debate in South Korea and Japan about whether they should build their own nuclear weapons,” noted Cirincione. “If we see a regular series of tests, the pressures in those countries will build.”

Indeed, Donald Gregg, a former ambassador to Seoul, noted Tuesday that, despite Pyongyang’s insistence that its nuclear programme is designed to deter, rather than threaten, it has already “prompted Japan to consider developing its own nuclear programme, which highlights the need for dialogue”.

For now, analysts here and in the region are particularly focused on discovering more about Tuesday’s test, particularly whether it involved a miniaturised nuclear device that could fit in a missile warhead or on a bomber aircraft and whether the device itself used plutonium, which it used in its two previous tests, or enriched uranium, which would be unprecedented.

“If we find out it’s a uranium bomb, that means they have a whole new stream of material that can be used to build nuclear weapons, and they might export this bomb design to Iran,” according to Cirincione, who noted the two countries have cooperated on missile technology in the past.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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