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NKorea widens threat, limits US options

North Korea’s nuclear test makes it no likelier that the regime will actually launch a nuclear attack, but it adds a scary dimension to another threat: the defiant North as a facilitator of the atomic ambitions of others, potentially even terrorists.

world Updated: May 26, 2009 11:18 IST

North Korea’s nuclear test makes it no likelier that the regime will actually launch a nuclear attack, but it adds a scary dimension to another threat: the defiant North as a facilitator of the atomic ambitions of others, potentially even terrorists. It also presents another major security crisis for President Barack Obama, already saddled with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a nuclear problem with Iran.

Obama spoke Monday night with the presidents of South Korea and Japan, assuring both leaders that the U.S. remains committed to the defense of their nations. The White House said in a statement that Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agreed that the test is “a reckless violation of international law that compels action in response.”

It’s far from clear what diplomatic or other action the world community will take. So far, nothing they’ve done has worked.

At an earlier juncture of the long-running struggle to put a lid on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the administration of President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s discussed with urgency the possibility of taking military action. That seems less likely now, with the North evidently nuclear armed and the international community focused first on continuing the search for a nonmilitary solution.

Meeting in emergency session in New York, the U.N. Security Council on Monday condemned North Korea’s nuclear test as a clear violation of a previous U.N. resolution banning such testing. The council said it would begin work immediately on a new legally binding resolution.

The North’s announcement that it conducted its second underground test of a nuclear device drew quick condemnation across the globe, including from its big neighbor and traditional ally, China. The Obama administration, which said the North’s action invited stronger, unspecified international pressure, has consistently called for Korean denuclearization but seemed not to have anticipated a deepening nuclear crisis.

Just two weeks ago, the administration’s special envoy for disarmament talks with North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said during a visit to Asian capitals that “everyone is feeling relatively relaxed about where we are at this point in the process.” If so, they are no longer.

Obama, appearing Monday in the White House Rose Garden, condemned the nuclear test and North Korea’s subsequent test-launch of short-range missiles. He called the actions reckless and said they endanger “the people of Northeast Asia.”

North Korea conducted its first atomic test in 2006 and is thought to have enough plutonium to make at least a half-dozen nuclear bombs. It also is developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, in defiance of U.N. actions.

One of the first estimates of the size of Monday’s nuclear explosion came from the Russian defense ministry, which put the yield at between 10 and 20 kilotons _ comparable to the U.S. bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945. But a senior U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it appeared the explosive yield was much smaller, perhaps a few kilotons. The official said more technical analysis would be done in coming days.

The administration official also disclosed that North Korea notified the State Department less than one hour before the explosion that it intended to conduct a nuclear test at an unspecified time. The U.S. then notified China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, the official said.

Obama made clear his intention to work with other world leaders to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on Pyongyang, and the United States could still try to resuscitate so-called six-party talks with the North as well as work with other members of the United Nations. North Korea has vowed not to resume participation in the six-party talks with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China and Russia.

Reflecting his view that only unified international action will compel North Korea to change course, Obama said that Russia and China, as well as traditional U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, have come to the same conclusion: “North Korea will not find security and respect through threats and illegal weapons.”

The Bush administration worked hard to get China, in particular, to press the North Koreans to denuclearize, and it seems likely that Obama will push equally hard with Beijing, which sided with the North Koreans against U.S. and United Nations forces during the 1950-53 Korean War. In recent years the Chinese have openly criticized the North Koreans for the nuclear arms program.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the importance of a strong, unified approach when she spoke by phone Monday to her counterparts in Japan and South Korea, Clinton spokesman Ian Kelly said.

Two of the main worries about North Korea are left unsaid: Would it use a nuclear bomb to attack a neighbor or the United States? And might it continue an established pattern of selling nuclear wherewithal and missiles to foreign buyers?

Graham Allison, an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and now director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said Monday that the international community regularly underestimates North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s willingness to do the unexpected.

“Could this guy believe he could sell a nuclear bomb to Osama bin Laden?” Allison asked in a phone interview. “Why not?”