North Korean Nuclear Blast Tests Obama's Engagement Policy

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

President Obama came into office saying he wanted to demonstrate that engagement with hostile nations is more effective than antagonism, but North Korea's nuclear test now leaves the young administration with critical choices about its response.

Does it ramp up the pressure with new and tougher sanctions? Does it not overreact and essentially stand pat? Or will it, like the Bush administration after North Korea's first test in 2006, shift course and redouble efforts at engagement and diplomacy?

A key variable is an assessment of what North Korea is hoping to gain. Is it ratcheting up the pressure to win new concessions from the United States and nations in the region? Or should the United States take its rhetoric at face value -- that it is aiming to become a full-fledged nuclear power, no matter what the cost in diplomatic isolation?

Top officials in the Obama administration have only begun to grapple with those questions and have not reached any conclusions beyond seeking condemnation by the U.N. Security Council with "consequences," officials said yesterday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hit the phones urging a "strong, unified" approach from other nations while President Obama said the North was "deepening its own isolation and inviting stronger international pressure." He vowed to "work with our friends and our allies to stand up to this behavior."

The answers are complicated by the fact that the notoriously unpredictable government in Pyongyang appears to be in flux, with leader Kim Jong Il ailing from a stroke and no clear successor in place.

U.S. administration officials took encouragement from the quick responses from China and also Russia, in particular. The two nations, North Korean allies, joined in yesterday's condemnations. The Russian reaction was "firmer" than after the last nuclear test and the Chinese reacted faster with condemnation than after the April missile test, administration officials said. Both countries also joined in the Security Council's unanimous condemnation of North Korea during an emergency meeting yesterday.

But analysts are skeptical that China's response means it will be more open to sanctions than in the past. It has traditionally been more concerned about regime instability on its border than nuclear weapons.

"There are a number of things going on here and there are a mixture of motives," one senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. North Korea is "developing its arsenal, following its historic style of dealing with the United States and others by engaging in acts of bravado, and dealing with its own questions of succession," the official said.

In any case, North Korea once again has forced its way to the top of the foreign policy agenda of a White House that largely had been focused on reaching out to Iran and dealing with the crisis in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While North Korea is an isolated, xenophobic nation, accepting it as a nuclear power is unthinkable for many in the region and could spur U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea to go nuclear.

"The Obama team came in thinking the problem is a lack of engagement," said Michael J. Green, who dealt with the North Korea issue as a top White House aide in the Bush administration. "They now realize that it is a lack of pressure. They are determined to reteach North Korea good manners."

Obama inherited a sputtering multilateral diplomatic process on North Korea from the Bush administration, and initially U.S. officials suggested they would jump-start the talks with the offer of direct, high-level bilateral discussions. Still there were suspicions in Asia and Washington that the president intended to only manage concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons, not resolve them, when he appointed a part-time special envoy to handle the talks. Senior officials during the transition concluded there were few good options for dealing with the North, but that downshifting of priorities could also have irritated Pyongyang.

Within weeks, North Korea spurned the administration's offer of direct talks and in April tested a long-range rocket. When the United States led an effort at the U.N. Security Council condemning the rocket test, North Korea angrily responded by suggesting it soon would test a nuclear weapon in order to strengthen its "deterrent."

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