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What can the US do about North Korea?

Washington’s response to the rogue nation’s nuclear test Monday is complicated by Pyongyang’s custody of two American journalists.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 2009


North Korea's underground nuclear test Monday may be seen as a major provocation that pushes Pyongyang near the top of the Obama administration's foreign-policy agenda.

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For the White House, the problem now could be figuring out precisely how the explosion changes the nature of the threat from North Korea's secretive regime – and what, if anything, the US can do about it.

The situation is made more difficult because two US journalists seized March 17 by the North Koreans along the border with China are due to stand trial on illegal entry and other charges in early June.

"For the administration, the immediate challenge is how to get the American journalists out of North Korea without giving North Korea leverage or enhancing the perception that we accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state," says Scott Snyder, director of the Center for US-Korea Policy at The Asia Foundation.

News of the test became public when North Korea issued a statement saying it had successfully detonated a nuclear device, defying international sanctions. The explosion was much larger than the one associated with its previous nuclear test in 2006, according to the North Korean statement.

Hours later, North Korea ripple-fired three ground-to-air missiles from a site associated with past ballistic missile tests. UN Security Council resolutions bar North Korea from any ballistic missile-related activity.

This weapons activity drew an immediate strong response from the White House. The nuclear explosion was "a blatant violation of international law" that violated North Korea's "own prior commitments," said President Obama.

As for the missile firings, they "pose a grave threat to the peace and security of the world and I strongly condemn their reckless action," said Mr. Obama in an appearance on the White House steps.

The nuclear test is the latest in a string of aggressive actions taken by Pyongyang since it walked away from a denuclearization agreement at the end of the Bush administration.

Despite diplomatic overtures from the new Obama team, North Korea threatened and then carried out a ballistic missile test in April, which appeared a relative failure. Pyongyang then proclaimed that six-party international talks on the future of its nuclear program to be finished. Now, it has carried out its second nuclear explosion.

In addition, North Korea announced in mid-May the upcoming trial for Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two US reporters in Pyongyang's custody. Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee had been in China reporting on North Korean refugees for Current TV, a California-based firm founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

Two factors appear to be at work in Monday's weapons tests, according to Victor Cha, Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a former director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.

The first is technical. North Korea obviously wishes to perfect both its nuclear and ballistic-missile technology.

The second may be political, writes Mr. Cha in an analysis of the tests. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly is gravely ill, and the country could be in the process of a leadership succession involving hard-line loyalists and members of the Kim family.