Urging restraint on North Korea and then watching those cautions be flouted has become a staple of the tense, long-running dispute with the isolated communist nation over its nuclear weapons program. Last week, it was President Obama's first turn to deal with the defiant ways of the North, as it fired a long-range rocket in violation of United Nations restrictions and raised new doubts about living up to its earlier commitment to denuclearize.
Though the long-expected launch did not qualify as a bona fide security crisis, it was a sign that the North, which is believed to have manufactured the fissile material for six to eight nuclear bombs, is making some progress on its ballistic missile capabilities. It also was an unwelcome intrusion on Obama's first-ever presidential swing through Europe, coming on the very day he delivered a major speech on preventing nuclear proliferation.
The North Korean rocket apparently never reached orbit, its likely payload of a communications satellite crashing into the Pacific Ocean. In North Korea, however, the launch was celebrated as a success, and supreme leader Kim Jong Il rewarded himself with a third term, which was made official last week by the country's rubber-stamp parliament.
Yet for all the North's theatrics, the launch represented progress: a flight twice as long as any previous one. The North very likely collected data useful in advancing its missile program. The rocket is believed to be a version of a Taepodong-2 that could, in theory, hit Alaska or Hawaii.
Obama criticized the rocket firing as a provocation requiring action in the U.N. Security Council. But diplomats from China and Russia counseled keeping the diplomatic retaliation to a minimum. U.N. diplomats struggled to craft a statement rebuking North Korea.
And the administration's overall approach to the launch has been fairly restrained. Officials are still working on a review of North Korea policy, and they may want to roll out their strategy for drawing the North back into denuclearization talks before getting bogged down in the sort of standoff that Pyongyang has used to extract concessions. Obama favors "direct" diplomacy with adversaries like North Korea and Iran, and this week his administration announced it will join direct, group talks with Iran on its nuclear program—a break from former President Bush's approach.
On North Korea, Obama's measured reaction seems to reflect the hope that China, with its leverage as a supplier of energy and food, will pressure Pyongyang to resume the denuclearization plan it agreed to in 2007 as part of lengthy six-nation negotiations. A drive to punish the North again could divide that group and trigger even more brinkmanship from Kim Jong Il.
- Read Explaining Obama's Mild Reaction to North Korea's Missile Launch.
- Read more from Thomas Omestad.