WASHINGTON - Given all the other foreign policy challenges he is dealing with, the last thing U.S. President Barack Obama needed three weeks after Republicans swept mid-term elections was the outbreak of a major new crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
Yet the revelation that North Korea has succeeded in building a state-of-the-art facility capable of enriching uranium to weapons grade, followed by its bombardment of a South Korean island that killed two soldiers and two civilians, has propelled Pyongyang to the top of his already over-crowded overseas agenda.
That's not only because the bombardment, which drew heavy retaliatory shelling by South Korean forces, has brought tensions on the peninsula to their highest level in decades, if not since the end of the Korean War more than 50 years ago.
The crisis could also strain increasingly delicate relations between the U.S. and China, which, to the administration's growing frustration, is widely seen here as North Korea's only big-power ally whose continuing diplomatic and economic support is indispensable to keeping the Kim dynasty in power.
China has long feared that regime collapse next door would result in chaos, spurring the flow of millions of refugees into northern China and the possible intervention of South Korean and U.S. troops right up to the border.
Washington's announcement Wednesday that it is dispatching the USS George Washington aircraft carrier task force to take part in joint military operations off the North Korean coast beginning this weekend is certain to cause heartburn in Beijing, as well as Pyongyang, given the increased sensitivity Beijing has shown in recent months regarding its maritime claims, including the Yellow Sea.
While the George Washington is intended primarily to convey solidarity with Washington's South Korean ally, it may well be seen as provocation in Beijing. According to some analysts here, the upcoming exercises likely presage a reinforcement of U.S. military capabilities in the region -- short, however, of returning U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, as was suggested earlier this week by Seoul's hawkish defence minister.
Washington has more than 25,000 U.S. troops stationed in the South at the moment.
"I imagine that over the coming weeks and months, you're going to see a further supplementing of the American presence," said Alan Romberg, a former East Asia State Department expert now with the Stimson Center here. "The Chinese won't like it; they'll see this as somewhat directed against them. But this is part of the cost of their letting the North go ahead and act with what we see as impunity."
Indeed, the administration focused on what it called the "pivotal" role played by China in dealing with North Korea. "We expect China to be clear, like we are, as to where the responsibility for the current situation, the current tension lies," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "This is something that we feel strongly about."
The events of the past several days have produced no end of advice for Obama, who had been focusing the administration's foreign policy efforts on gaining Senate ratification for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia before the end of the year, conducting a major review of strategy in Afghanistan, and preparing for a state visit here by Chinese President Hu Jintao in January at which North Korea may now figure as importantly as trade and monetary policy.
Hawks are arguing for some combination of toughening the U.S. and U.N. sanctions regimes against Pyongyang; mounting more displays of U.S. military power close to or over North Korea; increasing satellite and other broadcast emissions into the country to foster popular discontent; and increasing what pressure Washington and its regional allies can muster to persuade Beijing to abandon its support for a regime that they see as weakened by a transition between Kim Jong Il and his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Eun.
"Working with South Korea and Japan, the U.S. should call for unification of the two Koreas on terms acceptable to the South," wrote Henry Sokolski, head of the Non-Proliferation Education Center, in the right-wing National Review. "It should invite China to participate if it wants. Any serious effort will require South Korea to borrow to finance the transition and China to come to terms with possible refugee issues and the like."
More dovish voices, which include that of former President Jimmy Carter, have called on Obama to engage in direct talks with Pyongyang, either bilaterally or in the context of the so-called Six-Party Talks that are chaired by China and include the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and Russia, as well as the North, on a range of issues, from the future of its nuclear programs to the negotiation of a final peace treaty ending the Korean War.
Until now, the administration, which says it is pursuing a policy of "strategic patience", has refused to do so, demanding as a pre-condition that Seoul show a "seriousness of purpose" - beyond mere statements - regarding its intention to follow through on a 2005 pledge to completely dismantle its nuclear-weapons program.
In solidarity with Seoul, it has also demanded that Pyongyang apologize, or at least express regret, for its alleged torpedoing - and the resulting death of 46 sailors - of a South Korean warship last March, although that demand appears to have eased in recent weeks. Backed by China, Pyongyang has vehemently denied responsibility for the sinking.
"Beyond statements of condemnation (for the latest incident), ultimately we don't have a lot of choices," according to John Feffer, a Korea specialist who directs Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute of Policy Studies here.
"Strategic patience has only provoked the North to do whatever it can to prove it is impatient and wants to get back to the negotiating table, with the U.S. in particular. And the sanctions haven't done very much as has been proved by the sophistication of North Korea's new enrichment facility," he said.
"North Korea has told U.S. visitors that it is willing to transfer its plutonium fuel rods to a third country in exchange for Washington's restatement that it has no hostile intent, and that seems to me a useful starting point for talks, however difficult it is to swallow our and South Korea's anger after the latest events," he added.
But most analysts here, including Feffer himself, believe that Pyongyang's actions have made it politically more difficult for Obama to pursue such a course - at least in the short term - lest he be charged with appeasement by Republicans who emerged from the mid-term elections with a majority in the House of Representatives.
"I think the administration is ready to engage North Korea, but the pre-conditions will now apply in spades," Romberg told IPS. "They need to make things right with the South, and that has become far more difficult now."
"And on the nuclear front, while before we were talking only about a plutonium program and a suspected uranium program, the latter has now been confirmed," he said. "And dealing with a uranium program in terms of inspections and verification is much more complicated than a plutonium program, because uranium is much harder to detect."