Tuesday, May 26, 2009

North Korea's Nuclear Test may be Obama's First Challenge

North Korea's detonation of a nuclear bomb in the mountains near the Chinese border may be the initial foreign test Vice President Joe Biden infamously foresaw earlier this year. Last March, New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent told the Commonwealth Club that an administration's first crisis may not portend disaster. Sanger noted the Bush Administration's successful responses to the China EP-3 controversy when an American fighter jet collided with a Chinese jet over Hainan Island, and the handling of the post-9/11 up until the invasion of Iraq.

Sanger believed that an international incident including North Korea would likely be early in President Obama's first term and an unfortunate leftover from the previous administration's foreign policy regarding the communist nation.

"North Korea, to my mind, was probably the single biggest failure of diplomacy of the Bush Administration -- not that they didn't try in the second term -- but if you look at the moments when the North Koreans got their nuclear fuel, it was January, February and March of 2003, just as we were heading to Kuwait and up into Iraq," said Sanger, "That was the moment they picked, in full view of our satellites. I suspect North Korea could end up, just because it wants the attention, to be one of the early crisis."

The size of the nuclear bomb is unclear, although seismic readings suggest a blast one-quarter the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. To exacerbate international outrage over the test, it was reported that the North Koreans launched three short-range missiles, and some reports suggest the regime of Kim Jong Il is showing strength in the face of his waning health and uncertainty over who will succeed him.

Some experts are suggesting that the response to a nuclear test by North Korea seems to have hit the Obama Administration flat-footed.
“As much as they understood this was going to be an issue, they weren’t ready for a nuclear test in May,” an expert on North Korea told the New York Times. “They’re in a situation now where they have to contain and manage a crisis.”

How the president handles the situation will likely give the Iranians -- who are also believed to be actively pursuing the development of nuclear weapons -- an indication of how the administration will play its cards, yet each scenario has it differences. While Iran is believed to be seeking nuclear protection from a strike by either Israel or the U.S., some believe that North Korea has always used the procurement of nuclear weapons, in simplistic terms, to draw the attention of the Western world. Wendy Sherman, a policymaker in the Clinton administration, said succinctly, “The North Korean leadership cares about internal matters, not external matters. They care about external matters only insofar as it helps ensure the survival of the regime.”

For some important background on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, watch this May 25, 2007, video from the Commonwealth Club speech by Gordon C. Chang, author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World."


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