Analysis: North Korea Set as Obama’s First Foreign Crisis

WASHINGTON ~ North Korea’s expected rocket launch is set to confront US President Barack Obama with his first major foreign crisis and it is one that comes with few easy options, analysts say.

Experts say Obama will feel politically obliged to act tough, although he ultimately has little choice but to push for a resumption of talks to end the communist state’s nuclear program.

North Korea says it will launch a satellite between April 4 and 8, defying warnings from the United States and its allies, which believe Pyongyang is testing a long-range missile that could hit Alaska.

Pyongyang has warned that if the UN Security Council takes up the test, it would end six-nation talks on ending its nuclear program.

“The North Koreans are actually quite stupid. It’s not necessarily wise to be the first country to test Obama’s resolve,” said Gordon Flake, a Korea expert who advised Obama during his campaign.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, an arms control group, said that commercial satellite imagery suggests North Korea is no longer trying to hide the shape of the suspected missile, as “the missile is clearly visible” in an image of the launch site taken on Sunday.

Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation think-tank, said the Obama administration would want to focus “on the real priorities,” namely the global financial crisis, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran.

“But the louder North Korea is and the more they make this a big issue in the six-party talks, the less political leeway the Obama administration has,” he said.

Pyongyang stepped up its rhetoric on Wednesday, threatening to shoot down any US spy planes if they violated its airspace to monitor the imminent launch.

But Flake predicted an eventual resumption of the six-way talks, which involve China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States.

Even after North Korea tested an atom bomb in 2006, the international outcry helped pave the way for fresh talks that reached an aid-for-disarmament deal within months, he noted.

But the agreement deadlocked as Washington pressed Pyongyang to verify it was giving up its nuclear program. Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush held out hope until the last minute for progress, despite protests from so-called neoconservatives such as his vice president, Dick Cheney.

Hardliners have not left Washington. Ashton Carter, a strong advocate of nuclear non-proliferation named by Obama as an undersecretary of defense, had argued in 2006 for a preemptive military strike on North Korea as it prepared another – ultimately failed – long-range missile test.

“I think the current administration has its own faultlines. Instead of neocons, it’s the non-proliferation folks,” said Peter Beck, a professor at American University.

The International Crisis Group has appealed for calm from the United States and Japan – which has tense ties with Pyongyang – about the launch, warning that an “overblown” international response could “jeopardize” nuclear disarmament talks and even spark a war.

Any use of missile defenses against the rocket could in the worst case “risk a war with potentially devastating damage to South Korea, Japan and the world economy,” it said in a report.

The conflict prevention group urged Obama to send a high-level envoy to Pyongyang to present leader Kim Jong-Il with “an overall package” in exchange for nuclear and missile disarmament.

Bruce Klingner of the conservative Heritage Foundation rejected such an approach, saying that Obama should be firm in insisting North Korea live up to denuclearization promises made in the six-nation talks.

Offering concessions “is akin to urging a farmer who has lost every hand of poker against a wily dealer to go all in and bet his homestead in hopes of winning it all back – and more – on one hand,” he said.

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