North Korea attack leaves politically weaker Obama with unpalatable options

North Korea’s latest round of saber rattling leaves a politically weakened President Obama with several unpalatable options for dealing with the unstable nuclear power.

The North Korean shelling of a South Korean island follows the revelation of a new centrifuge plant that could eventually allow the North to add to its nuclear stockpile.

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Both developments suggest the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea is having little impact on the regime, which is focused on the transition of power from Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-un.

Pyongyang’s provocative moves are clearly designed to force the U.S. back to the negotiating table, where North Korea hopes to obtain food aid for its starving population as well as security commitments, experts say.

But doing so after a shelling that left two South Korean marines and two civilians dead risks leaving Obama open to attacks that he is appeasing the regime two years before his reelection.

Obama on Wednesday sent a U.S. aircraft carrier to the region for joint military exercises with South Korea after calling that country’s president to say the U.S. would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Seoul.

In his first public comments on the attack, Obama said he is “rallying the international community” to put pressure on North Korea, which he said poses a “serious and ongoing threat” to the region.

“We want to make sure all the parties in the region recognize that this is a serious and ongoing threat that has to be dealt with,” the president told ABC News’s Barbara Walters in an interview that will air Friday.

Republican leaders so far have joined Obama in condemning North Korea’s actions without criticizing the administration’s policy, though incoming Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) did say the North’s new nuclear program suggests the U.S. “must get serious about our homeland missile defense capabilities.”

But Republicans in the past have been critical of Obama’s efforts to reach out to regimes such as Iran, a cornerstone of the president’s 2008 campaign, which so far have had minimal results.


Experts on North Korea like Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Obama has bad and worse choices when it comes to North Korea.

Going back to the negotiating table with North Korea, something Glaser and other experts said is clearly on Pyongyang’s radar, could lead to charges, in the 2012 presidential campaign, that the president’s handling of the regime has failed. Republicans on the House Foreign Relations Committee, who will again be in charge of that panel, have already sent signals they will be tough in their oversight of the president.

Glaser said the best option for Obama is to put pressure on China. Beijing remains North Korea’s strongest ally, and it fears instability in the neighboring country could lead to a refugee crisis on its border.

Chinese President Hu Jintao is expected to visit Washington in January, which Glaser said could give Obama some leverage. It is important to the Chinese that Hu’s visit to Washington goes well, particularly after Obama implicitly criticized China at a meeting of international leaders in Toronto last summer, Glaser said.

At that meeting of the G-20, Obama criticized Hu and China for turning a blind eye to belligerent actions by North Korea. The G-20 meeting in June took place a few months after North Korea was implicated in the sinking of a South Korean naval ship.

Obama’s criticism irritated the Chinese, who do not want to be cast as irresponsible by other nations. As a result, they have additional reasons for wanting the January meeting between Hu and Obama to go smoothly. Given North Korea’s attack this week, Pyongyang will be at the top of the agenda.

A China strategy would get support from Congress. Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), who is likely the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that China has a responsibility to do all it can to help South Korea given the North’s latest actions.

In the Walters interview, Obama said China should put pressure on North Korea by telling them that “there are a set of international rules that you need to abide by.”

Some North Korean experts suggest more provocative, outside-the-box ideas for Obama.

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corporation, said North Korea’s actions illustrate how unstable the country might be, and he suggests that Obama take advantage.

The president should talk about how this week’s shelling shows how vulnerable North Korea is, he said. Bennett also said Obama should take steps to prepare for a humanitarian disaster in North Korea by sending vessels to the region that could aid in delivering food to that country if its government should topple.

Such steps would enrage Kim Jong-il, Bennett said, but would prepare the U.S. and the region for a regime change without providing any benefit to North Korea for its actions.