North Korea's defiance puts Obama in a corner

Its nuclear and missile tests are a setback for the president's concept of engagement with rogue nations.

North Korea's defiant nuclear test May 25 presents President Obama with a challenging new set of problems on the international scene.

The test is a setback for the Obama concept of engagement with rogue nations. It vastly complicates his attempts to defuse Iran's nuclear program. Iran's leaders may reasonably conclude: If North Korea can get away with building a nuclear arsenal largely unscathed, why not us? Indeed, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quick to rule out nuclear negotiations with other nations, declaring: "Iran's nuclear issue is over, in our opinion."

This, in turn, injects some tension into Mr. Obama's relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After his May 18 meeting in Washington with Mr. Netanyahu, Obama said the US diplomatic route to curb Iran's nuclear program would be reassessed by year's end. Netanyahu may well argue that if this timetable does not produce results, Israel is free to launch an airstrike against Iran's nuclear installations.

North Korea's provocation could pose problems for US relations with China, the nation most able to bring meaningful pressure to bear on the rogue nation. My sources say that even before the May 25 test, China was counseling patience to the US. After the test, Beijing's reaction was slow and soft, though more pointed than its earlier rhetoric.

China is disinclined to consider drastic steps that the US might suggest. One such step would be to cut off China's critical oil supply to North Korea. Though the Obama administration might hope for tougher Chinese action against North Korea, it will have to tread carefully, since the US has been wooing China, both as an emerging superpower and the holder of much of America's debt.

On April 5, in defiance of a United Nations Security Council resolution, North Korea test-fired a long-range missile. The Council rebuked the Pyongyang regime, which reacted angrily. It said it was terminating its participation in six-nation talks (with the US, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea) on its nuclear program. It demanded an apology from the UN, which was not forthcoming. Then came the May 25 test (followed by further missile firings), which the Security Council branded a "clear violation" of international law.

The situation is complicated by maneuvering in Pyongyang over the leadership succession. Kim Jong Il, the leader since 1994, after 46 years of rule by his father, Kim Il Sung, appears frail. To continue the Kim dynasty, he has been weighing the merits of his three sons. The oldest has been living abroad after he embarrassed his father in 2001 by getting arrested in Japan for using a forged passport (he reportedly wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland). The second son has also apparently failed the test to qualify. The third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, who is largely unknown outside North Korea, has apparently been tapped as his father's successor.

In this developing political situation, the presiding Mr. Kim is unlikely to cross the powerful military leaders who have been pressing for more nuclear and satellite testing.

Ideally, Obama would already have resolved the North Korean nuclear problem before dealing with Iran's. His options now are few.

He could try to jump-start the six-nation talks. (Unlikely to succeed.)

He could try one-on-one US talks with North Korea. (But Japan and South Korea would be apprehensive about being excluded.)

He could brandish the stick, pressing for even tougher UN sanctions. (Questionable with China and Russia on the Security Council.)

Or he could try the carrot, US economic aid. (Contradictory while existing sanctions are in place.)

Finally, there is the military option. (To be avoided if possible.)

If the world has to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, the Obama administration should make one thing explicitly clear: A North Korean nuclear attack on the US, its allies, or its military forces, or a secondhand attack on the same targets by terrorists supplied with a North Korean nuclear weapon, would trigger a US nuclear response.

It is a warning that should be taken somberly.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.

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