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."
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 a new sanctions regime 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.