Obama must respond, but options are limited
The time for keeping North Korea out of the nuclear-weapons club has now passed
Faced with a nuclear challenge from the defiant regime in North Korea, President Barack Obama has few options and no good ones as he grapples with the fallout of 15 years of failed U.S. policy.
“We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” the new President said soon after taking office, dumping the bellicose rhetoric favoured by his predecessor, George W. Bush, who famously branded North Korea – along with Iran and Iraq – as the “axis of evil.”
North Korea, the world's last Stalinist state led by the unpredictable Kim Jong-il, has responded to that overture by twice pulling the trigger, the latest a Hiroshima-sized thermonuclear blast on Monday. The deep, underground explosion sent a massive shock wave that rattled Mr. Obama's softer approach and will test whether the President can wield a mailed fist inside that velvet glove.
“Leadership is what you need when all the options are bad,” said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org and an expert on North Korea and nuclear proliferation. “If there was a good choice, there would be no need of leadership.”
Whether or not the military option – a massive, pre-emptive U.S. strike with warplanes and bunker-busting bombs to defang North Korea's nuclear program – was ever a viable option remains open to debate. However, in the wake of multiple missile launches and a massive blast, the time for keeping North Korea out of the nuclear-weapons club has now passed.
The option of doing nothing and hoping North Korea will cease provocation – or perhaps that a murky succession struggle will play itself out – has also vanished, not least because Iran will be watching closely to see whether Washington kowtows to Pyongyang. Mr. Obama is both committed to engagement with America's enemies, and calls the latest challenge from North Korea a “blatant violation of international law.” He has to do something.
For nearly two decades, successive presidents, first Bill Clinton, then George W. Bush and now Barack Obama, have tried threats and promises, and various flavours of diplomacy. Two decades of North Korean duplicity has resulted in the international community looking foolish, Beijing being deeply embarrassed by its wayward client, Washington looking weak and one of the world's least-understood and most dangerous states getting a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. With Seoul barely a cannon shot away, Tokyo less than two hours distant in a jet and missiles capable of striking much of East Asia, North Korea poses a potential nuclear nightmare.
Marshalling a meaningful and unified international response – likely in the form of a new United Nations Security Council resolution – may seem minimal but it would also represent a significant achievement for Mr. Obama.
Both Beijing and Moscow balked at tougher sanctions or even a new resolution after last month's missile test, preferring instead a strongly worded “statement.”
Sheila Smith, an Asian expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that statement “was foundational in the sense that it created the case for collective sanctioning action should Pyongyang move to conduct a second nuclear test, which it now has.”
The latest blatant North Korean defiance “puts the Obama administration in a better place” in dealing with the Security Council, she said. China may have finally run out of patience with Pyongyang, which might create conditions for a united front, including China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States, rather than a brave front hiding a deeply divided group.
Charting a diplomatic course that other key players, especially Beijing, can accept while at the same time satisfying critics at home and impressing Tehran that he is no pushover poses a challenge.
“If he tries to be too tough and then cannot deliver, he may wind up looking weak,” said Kyung-Ae Park, a Korean expert at the University of British Columbia.