WASHINGTON - Sunday's underground nuclear test by North Korea drew strong condemnation here Monday from U.S. President Barack Obama who suggested that Washington will seek strong international sanctions by the U.N. Security Council and possibly impose tough unilateral measures of its own.
According to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in Vienna, the blast slightly exceeded the force of Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006. Analysts here said the test was likely to pose an especially difficult policy challenge for China, which also condemned it.
Theoretically, China enjoys enormous leverage over Pyongyang due to the North's dependence on Beijing for the delivery of essential food and fuel supplies. At the same time, however, China has long worried that withholding those supplies could precipitate the collapse of the Communist regime, sending hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees across the border into China and possibly inviting South Korean and U.S. intervention.
On Monday, the 15-member Security Council held an emergency meeting that ended in a unanimous condemnation of the nuclear test. The Council said it would begin work on a new resolution in response to Pyongyang's "clear violation" of international law.
"The big issue going ahead now is what will happen in the way of further sanctions that will actually bite, and that really depends on what China is prepared to do," said Alan Romberg, a former senior Asia specialist at the State Department, who is now based at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. "It faces very difficult decisions."
Noting that the test was quickly followed by the launch of two short-range missiles, Romberg and other analysts here predicted that the events of the past 24 hours are likely to be followed by additional provocative actions on Pyongyang's part, including the possible launch of one or more ballistic missiles and the staging of hostile naval incidents directed against South Korea.
North Korea's latest actions took place amid rising tensions with the United States, despite recent offers by the Obama administration to send its special envoy, Ret. Amb. Stephen Bosworth, to Pyongyang to discuss terms that would persuade the North to re-join the Six-Party Talks - which also include South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan - to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
The latest escalation in tensions began Apr. 5 when Pyongyang launched a long-range missile which it said was designed to put a communications satellite into orbit but which, according to the U.S. and its western allies, violated a 2006 Security Council resolution that "demanded" that the North not "launch ... a ballistic missile... (and) suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program."
While China and Russia rejected a western-backed draft resolution imposing new sanctions on Pyongyang for the test, the two powers agreed to the issuance Apr. 13 by the Council's president of both a formal condemnation of the launch and a request to the U.N. sanctions committee to develop a list of North Korean companies involved in missile and nuclear technology that could be subject to additional sanctions.
Pyongyang reacted by announcing its permanent withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks and ordering inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to remove surveillance devices and other equipment at its mostly disabled Yongbyon nuclear plant and leave the country.
Spurning calls by Washington and others to return to the talks, Pyongyang announced at the end of April that, barring a reversal by the Council, it would start a uranium enrichment programme - in addition to rebuilding Yongbyon - and conduct new nuclear and ballistic-missile tests.
Thus, the only surprise about Monday's test, whose force was roughly the equivalent of the U.S. bombs that devastated most of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, was that it took place so soon after Pyongyang had issued the threat. Most analysts here believed it would take more time for the North to prepare.
In a written statement issued by the White House well before dawn Monday, Obama noted that both the test and the missile launches were "not a surprise" but were nevertheless "of grave concern to all nations" and "constitute a threat to international peace and security".
"North Korea is not only deepening its own isolation, it's also inviting stronger international pressure," Obama himself told reporters just before noon. "That's evident overnight, as Russia and China, as well as our traditional allies of South Korea and Japan, have all come to the same conclusion: North Korea will not find security and respect through threats and illegal weapons."
"We will work with our friends and allies to stand up to this behavior, and we will redouble our efforts toward a more robust international non-proliferation regime that all countries have responsibilities to meet," he added.
Pyongyang's increasingly aggressive behavior has been subject to a number of different interpretations by analysts here, some of whom insist that it is mostly tied to an internal succession struggle that has intensified since the country's leader, Kim Jong-il, apparently suffered a stroke last summer. In this view, Kim is both trying to reassure hard-liners who dominate the military and gain their support for his preferred line of succession.
While not ruling out the domestic motivation, other analysts have argued that Pyongyang's actions are motivated, at least in major part, by the belief - most recently sustained by Bush's decision to relax his terms for engaging Pyongyang after the 2006 nuclear test - that brinkmanship will make Washington more responsive to its basic concerns.
These include humanitarian and economic assistance and security guarantees, as well as formal recognition as a nuclear-weapons state and even an eventual arrangement similar to that which the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush worked out with India.
But virtually all analysts here are agreed that Obama is very unlikely to respond in the ways that Pyongyang hopes, particularly regarding U.S. recognition of North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. That "would create a crisis of confidence in the alliance with Japan as well as with (South Korea)," according to a recent article in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo by Victor Cha, a North Korea specialist at Georgetown University who served on Bush's National Security Council staff.
"They may have miscalculated in believing that the United States will in fact accept their nuclear status and will negotiate bilaterally with them on normalization in these circumstances," said Romberg, who also noted that Pyongyang also may have miscalculated about the willingness of Russia and China to go along with the Apr. 13 Security Council statement.
Indeed, much attention here is now being focused on China's response to the test. Initially, Beijing reacted relatively mildly, denouncing the test but calling for calm. Two hours later, however, the Foreign Ministry issued a more pointed statement, "demand(ing) that the DPRK live up to its commitment to non-nuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, stop any activity that might worsen the situation and return to the track of the Six Party Talks."
The statements, according to the latest edition of "The Nelson Report", a private newsletter considered a must-read for Asia specialists here, "seem to indicate that Beijing may be approaching a level of exasperation and concern which will - for the first time in real terms since 1994 - force China to accept and implement a real sanctions regime against the DPRK."
Meanwhile, administration officials suggested that Washington may be preparing to re-impose Bush-era financial sanctions against banks and companies suspected of conducting illicit transactions on behalf of Pyongyang.
At the same time, the administration's response may be tempered by concern over the fate of two young Asian-American film-makers arrested by Pyongyang along the Chinese-North Korean border in March. They are due to go on trial for "hostile acts" against the government Jun. 4.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.