The North Korea Nuke Test: What Obama Should Consider

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Yesterday, North Korea launched its second-ever nuclear weapons test, directly violating international law for the second time since 2006. The move was immediately met with worldwide condemnation, including a unanimous rebuke from the U.N. Security Council, which held an emergency meeting over the issue. President Obama quickly announced his own response from the White House steps, as well, noting that Pyongyang's tests "pose a grave threat to the peace and security of the world and I strongly condemn their reckless action." The underground detonation also spurred South Korea to agree to join in the multinational Proliferation Security Initiative, pledging to help with a naval blockade of ports that might trade in nuclear arms. North Korea has said that it will treat its neighbor's participation in this venture as an act of war. This is Obama's first nuclear test, and the world is now waiting to see how he reacts going forward.

• "Deliberately or not, the secretive regime did President Obama a favor by committing its latest provocation during Memorial Day weekend," writes Ben Pershing, observing that Obama himself even managed to squeeze in a game of golf yesterday. "That timing served to muffled [sic] and delay the reaction from administration critics, who are only now returning from vacation to start criticizing Obama for his alleged foreign policy weakness." [44/WP]

• Former Bush ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton writes that Obama and Democrats have been preparing the United States poorly for a test like this, by moving against an arms race in outer space (where we currently hold an advantage), moving to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, ending financing for replacing old warheads, cutting homeland missile-defense budgets, and giving Russia too much of the upper hand in bilateral talks. [NYT]

• Former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright said that the subtle downgrading of North Korean diplomacy efforts by the Obama administration since January were "very frustrating," and were not lost on the rulers there. The only way forward, he argues, is through a very consistent, diplomatic, "high-level effort rather than just management of a problem." [WP]

• But Reuters and other international news organizations report that even though North Korea may have been angered by Obama's recalcitrance, domestic factors likely played a strong role in the test — Kim Jong-il is in failing health, and as his economy continues to suffer, there has been a question of succession. He likely seeks some sort of support for his regime from Obama through a transition in leadership. Recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state would be the sort of recognition that would boost his national standing. (South Korea, Japan, and the United States have said they'd never give them that.) [Reuters]

• Asia Foundation Korea expert Scott Snyder says it's important not to forget that there are two imprisoned American journalists in Pyongyang whose lives need to be considered. "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," he said. [CSMonitor]

• "We need a coordinated effort with China that combines pressure with incentives," writes Joe Cirincioni, disagreeing. "Not just promises to talk, but a clear description of what North Korea could gain from stopping and then rolling back its program, coupled with sustained engagement that carries through on the commitments we make and gives the North Korean government the attention it thinks it deserves — however repugnant that may be." [HuffPo]

• "One crucial point for the U.S. to watch will be the future of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant. In the past, it has been the production site for the regime's stash of weapons-grade plutonium, estimated as large enough to produce six to eight weapons," analyzes Peter Grier. The plant is now shut down, but if it was restarted, Obama would have about twelve months before it was functional again during which to decide to what degree North Korea is a threat to American national security. [CSMonitor]

&38226; "The Obama policy is a good one: Speak seriously, carry a big stick, but don’t use it unless necessary—and let China take the lead for the moment," writes Leslie Gelb. "And that’s precisely what Beijing did on Monday, when its Foreign Ministry issued a statement that 'demanded' Pyongyang return to the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. In time, when Pyongyang sees that its now-familiar war dance does not produce apoplexy in Washington (which it equates with weakness), it will be back to the bargaining table." [Daily Beast]