North Korea nuclear test prompts warnings — but also resignation


America awoke to a third North Korean nuclear test on Tuesday — and also to a now-familiar Washington ritual.

A U.S. president threatened repercussions. Opposition lawmakers denounced the administration’s handling of the crisis. And experts warned there’s really not much the United States can do about it.

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“I tend to think this is a lot to do about not a lot: they’ve tested before, so they’ve crossed the Rubicon,” said Toby Dalton, the deputy director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

“I think our options are very limited. The reason the Bush administration opted to work with others to construct a six-party framework is a recognition that we alone have very little leverage to push North Korea in a direction we saw as positive. That assessment still holds.”

The latest test follows a series of recent provocative actions that have dimmed hopes that young leader Kim Jong Un would be a reformer. 

North Korea tested a long-range missile late last year in violation of United Nations obligations and threatened Monday’s test after the U.N. slapped new sanctions on the country in response.

“This nuclear test was only the first response we took with maximum restraint,” a North Korean Foreign Ministry official told KCNA news agency. “If the United States continues to come out with hostility and complicates the situation, we will be forced to take stronger, second and third responses in consecutive steps.”

President Obama vowed “further swift and credible action by the international community” in response to the test.

“The United States will also continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies,” he said Tuesday. 

“We will strengthen close coordination with allies and partners and work with our Six-Party partners, the United Nations Security Council, and other U.N. member states to pursue firm action.”

North Korea had warned the U.S. of its intentions ahead of time, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. 

As soon as the test was confirmed Monday night, Obama called his counterparts in South Korea, China, Japan and Russia to “consult and coordinate” on a response.

Secretary of State John Kerry followed through with calls to the region’s foreign ministers on Tuesday. And the United Nations called an emergency meeting of its Security Council to address the long-awaited test.

“To address the persistent danger posed by North Korea’s threatening activities, the U.N. Security Council must and will deliver a swift, credible and strong response by way of a Security Council resolution that further impedes the growth of DPRK’s [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and its ability to engage in proliferation activities,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after the meeting. 

“In the days ahead, we will consult closely with other Council members and concerned U.N. member states to pursue appropriate further action.”

Republicans questioned the U.N.’s ability to pass meaningful sanctions, however.

“The United States must stand side-by-side with its closest allies in North East Asia, Japan and South Korea in responding to North Korea’s dangerous provocations,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in a statement. “We must insist that the international community, and especially North Korea’s neighbor China, apply meaningful sanctions and significant pressure on North Korea for its destabilizing provocations.”

Dalton said the timing of the test, on the eve of Obama’s State of the Union address and just as Japan, South Korea and China are getting new leaders, was meant as a signal to the rest of the world. 

Unless Pyongyang shows more signs of proliferation, however, he said it was unlikely that China would weigh in too heavily on its smaller neighbor.

Other lawmakers saw an opening to press their own priorities.

Hawkish Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, said it was “no coincidence” the test took place ahead of a speech in which Obama was expected to mention nuclear disarmament.

“It is even more disturbing to learn that while North Korea is expanding its weapons programs, the president is contemplating unilateral disarmament,” Turner said. “This is the wrong time to say to the North Koreans: ‘We’ll lay down our weapons, while you raise yours.’ ”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) was expected to reintroduce her bill urging the State Department to put North Korea back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism. 

Former President George W. Bush’s State Department removed the country in 2008.

“This is another incident to ratchet up the pressure,” a House Republican aide said.

A State Department spokeswoman told The Hill that’s not in the cards right now.

“As a matter of law, in order for North Korea to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the government of North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” Rhonda Shore said.

“Available information does not indicate that the DPRK government has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism since its designation was rescinded in October 2008.