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North Korean nuclear blast is test for Obama and diplomacy

WASHINGTON — North Korea's new in-your-face test of a nuclear weapon poses a grave new challenge to President Barack Obama, one with no clear path to a solution.

Obama vowed Monday that the international community would "stand up" to North Korea for its belligerent action, and the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean test Monday afternoon, calling it a "clear violation" of a 2006 U.N. resolution.

However, Obama's and the international community's options are limited, and the prospects are none-too-promising for influencing a rogue nation headed by an aging dictator in poor health who may believe his legacy is making his impoverished country a nuclear power.

The new test also comes as Obama is facing a long and pressing agenda, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and another nuclear nemesis in Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Monday that his country wouldn't abandon its uranium enrichment program in exchange for a relaxation of Western economic sanctions.

In coming days, Obama also meets with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas as part of a press for Middle East peace; he's likely to name his pick to fill a Supreme Court vacancy; and he's preparing for a much-awaited speech to the Muslim world on June 4 in Cairo.

However, starting with briefings last week anticipating a possible North Korean test to the call confirming the test late Sunday evening, it was clear that Obama now must confront yet another challenge.

"The Democratic People's Republic of Korea successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defense," North Korea announced through its state-run news agency. The rogue nation also apparently tested at least one short-range missile.

North Korea boasted that its new weapon was more powerful and more technologically advanced than the one it tested in October 2006, calling it "a new higher level in terms of its explosive power and technology of its control. The results of the test helped satisfactorily settle the scientific and technological problems arising in further increasing the power of nuclear weapons and steadily developing nuclear technology."

Russian officials said the new test measured 10 to 20 kilotons, or about the size of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. U.S. officials estimated that the earlier weapon measured less than 1 kiloton. One kiloton represents the force of 1,000 tons of TNT.

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization said from its Vienna headquarters, however, that the underground blast measured 4.52 on the Richter scale, only "slightly" higher than the 4.1 recorded in 2006.

A senior Obama administration official said the characteristics suggested "a few kilotons." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as a matter of White House policy, said that North Korea in 2006 "vastly overstated the size of that test."

Either way, the tremors set off by the blast were felt as far away as the Chinese border city of Yanji, 130 miles from the test site.

The United States and other nations immediately condemned the test. "North Korea's nuclear ballistic missile programs pose a great threat to the peace and security of the world, and I strongly condemn their reckless action," Obama said at the White House.

It's unclear how the U.S. and other nations could cajole or force North Korea to change course, however.

After the 2006 test, the U.S. and other countries agreed to give North Korea a million tons of fuel oil in exchange for dismantling its nuclear facilities. The country started to dismantle its facilities in 2007, but stopped in 2008 in a dispute over how to verify progress.

Then, when it tried to test a missile on April 5 and was widely criticized, North Korea said it would restart its nuclear program.

Analysts said Monday that economic sanctions are unlikely to work any better now than they have in the past, especially if dictator Kim Jong-il is devoted to making his country a nuclear power.

"Sanctions haven't worked. Security Council resolutions haven't worked," said a diplomat in Vienna, the headquarters of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.

The United States and other countries also appear to have "overestimated" Beijing's ability to use the considerable food and economic aid it provides Pyongyang to influence North Korean behavior, said the diplomat, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment on the repercussions of the North Korean test.

Pyongyang, he said, also may be reinforcing its decision to renounce a 2005 agreement with its six-party partners, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S., to abandon its nuclear arms program.

"These bangs are for political mileage, not war fighting," he said.

Pyongyang renounced the 2005 accord and 2007 agreements on steps to implement it after the U.N. Security Council on April 13 condemned its test of a long-range missile over the Sea of Japan and imposed sanctions on three North Korean firms. Pyongyang expelled U.N. and U.S. nuclear inspectors and said it was restarting its plutonium production reactor at Yongbyon.

Despite sanctions' record so far, the new North Korean test triggered calls for Obama to press China and Russia, which have veto power in the Security Council, to end their resistance to tougher U.N. measures on North Korea.

Obama said the United States and other countries "must take action in response." He said that China and Russia, as well as "our traditional allies of South Korea and Japan" all had concluded that the test violated United Nations resolutions.

Later Monday, he spoke by telephone with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso. Aides said that Obama assured Lee of the "unequivocal commitment of the United States to the defense of the Republic of Korea." He also thanked Lee for South Korea's decision to join the Proliferation Security Initiative, and expressed his condolences over the recent death of former President Roh Moo-hyun.

They said Obama and Aso agreed to press the Security Council for a resolution with "concrete" measures to curb North Korea's nuclear and missile activities.

However, experts worry that domestic politics in North Korea also mean that sanctions aren't likely to be effective.

The U.N. diplomat said that the test also appeared to be aimed at pressing North Korea's demand for direct talks with the United States on a treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War, something that successive U.S. administrations have refused to do without the participation of South Korea.

A July 27, 1953 armistice agreement signed by the North Korean, Chinese and U.N. military commanders is still in place, but then-South Korean President Syngman Rhee refused to sign it, and no peace treaty has ever been negotiated.

"The rapid pace of Pyongyang's provocations since January indicates it has altered its objectives and is no longer responsive to diplomatic entreaties," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy research organization.

"The change in North Korean objectives may have been triggered by Kim Jong-il's health crisis and a desire to achieve nuclear objectives prior to his death or a formal succession."

There's "a need for (new) diplomacy," said the U.N. diplomat in Vienna. He said the Obama administration should explore a fresh diplomatic approach, noting that it's "shown the wherewithal to think outside the box" by offering to hold direct talks with Iran on the dispute over its nuclear program.

"The complicating factors are the views of South Korea and Japan," he continued. "They have their own issues with" North Korea.

"Some of this is about issues of status and balance of power," said Daniel Sneider of Stanford University's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. "In their minds, it is compensation for weakness. It is a weak state, a collapsing state."

"They want to be treated as a legitimate nuclear power, and there is no way we can do that," he said.

Moreover, such recognition would undermine U.S. security guarantees to South Korea and Japan, which then might consider developing their own nuclear arsenals, Sneider added.

"People have got to listen to the North Koreans when they speak. They said the six-party talks are dead, and they meant it," he said.

The latest test comes at a critical time.

North Korea dictator Kim Jong-il, 67, is in poor health, believed to have suffered a stroke last August. His health could be driving him to seek nuclear capability before dying or handing over power. His succession, like most everything about the isolated communist dictatorship, isn't clear.

Sneider said that the nuclear and missile tests and the renunciation of the 2006 six-party denuclearization accord appear to show that a commission of senior military officers and civilians involved in military industries and the missile and nuclear weapons programs are overseeing regime policy following Kim's illness.

A leading member of the commission is Kim's brother-in-law, Jang Song Paek, who may be acting a "regent" until the youngest of Kim's three sons, Jong-Un, 25, whom he's apparently tapped as his successor, is old enough to step into his father's shoes, Sneider said.


The White House released this chronology of the North Korean nuclear weapon test:

After 8 p.m. EDT Sunday. North Korea notifies the U.S. it will test a nuclear weapon. The U.S. notifies China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

9 p.m. A seismic event near the site of North Korea's 2006 underground nuclear test is recorded by the United States Geological Survey.

11:15 p.m. President Obama informed of OSGS report. He'd been briefed several times last week about potential tests.

Midnight. Obama speaks by telephone with National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones.

2:15 a.m. Monday. Obama releases statement, calls tests a cause for "grave concern."

9 a.m. White House interagency meeting.

9:50 a.m. Obama meets with National Security personnel and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

10:35 a.m. Obama makes statement in Rose Garden.

4 p.m. United Nations Security Council meeting.

6 p.m. White House interagency meeting.


Comment from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Committee

The Risks of North Korea's Nuclear Restart by Siegfried S. Hecker, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 12, 2009


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