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North Korean Nuclear Blast Tests Obama's Engagement Policy

The administration response to the North's rhetoric has been inconsistent, perhaps in part because the Senate, leaving a key policymaking role for North Korea unfilled, still has not confirmed Obama's nominee for assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Kurt Campbell. Other key players include James B. Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state; Stephen W. Bosworth, the special envoy; Jeffrey Bader, the top Asia specialist at the White House; and Gary Samore, the White House nonproliferation director.

Bosworth, who also retained his job as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told reporters just days before the rocket test that "pressure is not the most productive line of approach" in dealing with North Korea and that talks probably would resume after "a cooling-off period."

But Samore recently told a conference at the Brookings Institution that "it's very clear that the North Koreans want to pick a fight. They want to kill the six-party talks," the six-nation negotiating forum -- made up of the United States, North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia -- that has met since 2003 to try to resolve the issue.

Samore predicted that North Korea would conduct a test but that the North would be forced back to negotiations within nine months. "We'll just wait," he said.

Clinton, meanwhile, gave an entirely different message in recent congressional testimony, telling lawmakers that "at this point it seems implausible, if not impossible, the North Koreans will return to the six-party talks and begin to disable their nuclear capacity again."

Setting the right tone will be critical now, analysts said, because the Bush administration frequently veered between tough talk and concessions, largely because top officials were split on the right response. Bush initially labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" and let lapse a deal that had kept North Korea's nuclear reactor shuttered.

During the Bush years, North Korea built a stockpile of plutonium that could fuel at least a six weapons until it finally conducted its first test in 2006. The U.N. Security Council backed Bush's demands for a tough response, but then the president abruptly dropped efforts to impose new sanctions after other nations resisted. He instead shifted to intense diplomacy, including offering concessions such as dropping North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, if it began to disable its nuclear program.

Democrats had long criticized Bush for not engaging more with North Korea and applauded his change of heart. Indeed, during the presidential campaign Obama supported removing North Korea from the terrorism list while his Republican rival John McCain was critical. Bush made the concession after vague assurances from Pyongyang that it would agree to a verification plan; North Korea later denied it had made any such agreement.

John R. Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador who has long advocated a tough approach to the North, faulted the Obama administration for expecting that the six-nation talks could be revived after North Korea reneged on the deal with Bush.

"There is plenty of blame to go around" for the current situation, he said. "The real moment of truth now is how the Obama administration responds to the test."

Bolton argued for placing North Korea back on the terrorism list, imposing sweeping sanctions and seeking to expel North Korea from the United Nations -- in effect daring China to veto such tough measures.

But David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said the response should not be new sanctions but instead better diplomacy. He said he found the administration's response to North Korea's provocations over the past few months "very frustrating," with one senior official even privately joking to him that perhaps North Korea would use up its stash of plutonium through repeated testing.

"This has required a high-level effort rather than just management of a problem," Albright said. Renegotiating a treaty with Russia "was more urgent to them than North Korea," he said, adding: "That was a big mistake."

Victor Cha, the deputy negotiator to the six-party talks in the Bush administration, said Bush had trouble winning broad support for sanctions because many around the world blamed his administration for the crisis in the first place and suspected he secretly was trying to topple the government.

"No one in the world blames this on Obama," Cha said. "They carry none of the baggage of the Bush administration, and that could work to the United States's advantage. I think North Korea underestimates that."

Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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