President Obama, other world leaders and the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned North Korea’s nuclear test Monday, while experts who have studied the isolated state for years warned that the U.S. has few options and that more provocation likely lies ahead.
“North Korea’s programs pose a grave threat to the peace and security of the world,” Mr. Obama said Monday, hours after the communist nation followed its nuclear test by firing three medium-range missiles. “North Korea will not find security and respect through threats and illegal weapons.”
The president said the international community “must take action in response,” while other leaders in nations in the six-party talks - Russia, China, South Korea and Japan - issued similar condemnations.
On Tuesday, South Korea said it will join the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which began in 2003 to deter states such as North Korea and Iran from trade in missile and nuclear technology, the Associated Press reported. South Korea planned to join the program after the North’s April 9 rocket launch, but delayed the announcement after a surprise offer of a dialogue by the North.
North Korea has warned that it would consider the South’s full participation in the program as a declaration of war.
In New York on Monday, the U.N. Security Council convened in an emergency session in which all 15 members demanded that Pyongyang adhere to previous council resolutions to dismantle its nuclear program.
“What we heard today was swift, clear, unequivocal condemnation” of the test, said Susan E. Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “The U.S. thinks this is a grave violation of international law and a threat to the region and international peace and security.”
Analysts, however, said little can be done because North Korea has violated multiple promises to freeze or halt its production of nuclear weapons going back to the Clinton administration.
The U.N. Security Council was expected to add sanctions, but North Korea has been penalized to the point that few options remain.
“There isn’t really a good solution here. Pressure from the U.S. isn’t going to go anywhere,” said Scott Bruce, director of U.S. operations at the Nautilus Institute, housed at the University of San Francisco Center for the Pacific Rim. “This is the beginning of a long series of very negative things, not the end of them.”
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the nuclear strategy initiative at the New America Foundation in Washington, said working through the U.N. Security Council remains the best option for the new president.
“We never really have had a huge number of options,” he said. “The Obama administration needs to be in a position to seize an opportunity if looks like the North Koreans are ready for a deal.”
He said the most important thing for Mr. Obama to do is to maintain strong relations with Japan and South Korea.
The president and his advisers were not surprised by the move. In early April, the North launched a multistage rocket in defiance of the U.S. and other world powers. The test was only marginally successful, and it failed to launch a satellite into orbit, as North Korea claimed.
Analysts predicted another missile test in the coming months and possibly more nuclear tests, with North Korea attempting to ratchet up pressure.
Mr. Bruce said the Obama administration also is in a tough spot because ambassadors are not fully in place, and he expressed concern that North Korea might move to maritime provocation as it continues to try to raise the stakes.
A senior administration official said Mr. Obama was briefed several times over the past week about potential North Korea actions, and the nation informed the State Department on Sunday night that it would be conducting a test but did not say when.
The United States then notified the governments of Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Mr. Obama held a midnight discussion with National Security Adviser James L. Jones before releasing a 2:10 a.m. statement.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso called the nuclear test “a clear violation of U.N. resolutions.”
“It can never be tolerated,” he said.
South Korean presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan called it “an intolerable provocation.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with her counterparts in South Korea, Japan, Russia and China on Monday.
Mr. Obama spoke late Sunday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Mr. Aso.
The White House said Mr. Obama and Mr. Lee “agreed to work closely together to seek and support a strong United Nations Security Council resolution with concrete measures to curtail North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities.”
The White House also said Mr. Obama assured Mr. Lee that the United States is committed to defending his nation and made a similar assurance to Mr. Aso about peace and security in the region.
The White House said Mr. Aso and Mr. Obama decided to “intensify coordination” with South Korea, China and Russia.
The administration official said North Korea is “more isolated than ever” and has lost all credibility, noting that a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman last month demanded an apology from the Security Council for its earlier condemnation of the April rocket launch.
Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society and a former senior U.S. diplomat dealing with North Korea, said recent events prove that this is a “new and dangerous situation” because Pyongyang has “shown no interest” in walking through the open door to negotiations.
“President Obama’s firm statement today is helpful in setting the right tone and making it clear that the North Korean test is unacceptable and that there will be a strong response,” he said.
Last summer, as a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama said sanctions are a “critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act,” but analysts, including Mr. Bruce, said sanctions don’t work because there is so little trade between the United States and North Korea.
Barbara Slavin contributed to this report from Washington and Betsy Pisik from New York.