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The Monitor's View

Why Obama can't be soft on North Korea

Japan and South Korea already see him as eroding the US military posture in Asia.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / May 28, 2009

It would be hard to imagine President Obama ever standing only a few feet from the North Korean border and warning its leaders that if they ever used nuclear weapons, "it would be the end of their country."

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Mr. Obama is not the threatening kind. He prefers "soft" power to win over his adversaries. In fact, after North Korea's May 25 test of a bomb close in size to the one dropped on Hiroshima, he said the US would merely "work with our friends and allies to stand up to this behavior."

What a contrast to the last Democratic president.

It was President Clinton who actually spoke those threatening "hard power" words – within earshot of North Korean soldiers – in 1993. At the time, Pyongyang was revving up its nuclear-bomb program.

Mr. Clinton knew something back then that Obama is learning on the job: Tough talk against an enemy is sometimes needed simply to reassure America's allies that the US will live up to its defense promises. Those commitments include its unique role to provide nuclear deterrence, or promised retaliation, if an ally is attacked.

By his actions and his words, Obama is sending worrisome signals to Japan and South Korea that they might be left alone in a confrontation with North Korea or even perhaps China.

It's an impression he needs to correct quickly with credible reassurance.

Beyond Obama's lackluster response so far to North Korea's first successful atomic blast, Japan and South Korea worry that the president's focus on his big domestic agenda will erode the US military posture in Asia and the will of Americans to defend allies.

They see Obama's pullout of troops from Iraq and the calls by some in the Democratic Party to set a timetable for a US retreat from Afghanistan.

They worry that his proposed cuts in ballistic-missile defense would leave Asian allies vulnerable while his cuts in F-22 fighter jets would harm Japan's ability to build a similar plane to defend itself against China.