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US officials hesitant to condemn rocket launch by North Korea

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is drawing no "red line" for North Korea after a successful long-range rocket test, trying to temper the public condemnation for fear it could raise tensions and possibly reward the reclusive communist nation too much time in the global spotlight.

The U.S. has told the world that it won't tolerate Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons capability or Syria's use of chemical stockpiles on rebels. North Korea, in some ways, is a trickier case.

The U.S. wants to forcefully condemn what it believes is a "highly provocative act," and that was the first public reaction from the White House late Tuesday. But it also is mindful of the turmoil on the Korean peninsula and treading carefully, offering no threat of military action or unspecified "consequences" associated with other hot spots.

Just two years ago, the North allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship and shelled a South Korean island. Some 50 South Koreans died in the attacks that brought the peninsula to the brink of war.

North Korea already has the deterrent of a nuclear weapons arsenal. The U.S. is bound to protect next-door South Korea from any attack, but has no desire now for a military conflict.

Raising the rhetoric can even serve as a reward for seeking attention to a government that starves its own citizens while seeking to leverage any military advance it makes into much-needed aid.

"No doubt Pyongyang is pleased. It again has unsettled its leading adversaries. And it is in the news around the world," said Doug Bandow, senior fellow at the Cato Institute. "The allies should have responded with a collective yawn. After all, the plan is nothing new. The DPRK has been testing rockets and missiles for years."

The United States remains technically at war with the notoriously unpredictable North Koreans, whose opaque leadership has confounded successive American administrations. With no peace agreement, only the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War keeps the U.S. and the North from hostilities. Some 28,500 U.S. troops remain in South Korea to deter potential aggression.

Wednesday's surprising, successful launch raises the stakes, taking North Korea one step closer to being capable of lobbing nuclear bombs over the Pacific. As the North refines its technology, its next step may be conducting another nuclear test, experts warn.

The three-stage rocket is similar in design to a model capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as California.

Despite its technological advances and military bluster, it's doubtful that the North intends to strike first against the U.S.

North Korea has spent decades threatening but avoiding a direct confrontation with the tens of thousands of American forces in South Korea and Japan. The government has remained firmly in power despite a drought-plagued agricultural sector that leaves many North Koreans in search of food and a crumbling economy that affords few any chance of social betterment.

"This action is yet another example of North Korea's pattern of irresponsible behavior," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

"The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and fully committed to the security of our allies in the region. Given this current threat to regional security, the United States will strengthen and increase our close coordination with allies and partners."

The White House statement didn't specifically mention North Korea's traditional regional foes, South Korea and Japan.

The sole reference to consequences concerned potential action at the U.N. Security Council, which held closed consultations Wednesday on possible new penalties. Even that threat is unclear; China, North Korea's benefactor, holds veto power over any package of measures.

Analysts were mixed on whether a tougher reaction was appropriate.

"There has been an unspoken tendency in the United States to discount these tests as yet another foolish attempt by the technologically backward and bizarre country," said Victor Cha, a Korea expert at Georgetown University and former White House policy director for Asia. "This is no longer acceptable. The apparent success of this test makes North Korea one of the only nonallied countries outside of China and the Soviet Union to develop long-range missile technology that could potentially reach the United States."

The administration's restrained response contrasts with the warnings of military action against Iran and Syria for actions far less imminently threatening to the United States, but directly threatening Israel, an important ally.

Obama has said he won't allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and insists that he won't get involved in a policy of containment similar to the one the U.S. is stuck with in North Korea. He promises that he isn't bluffing.

The U.S. and Israel have held talks over what benchmarks in uranium enrichment and weapons work the Iranians would have to reach for possible military action to be triggered.

What's clear from his words is that Obama wouldn't wait for Iran to have a bomb, meaning the threshold for a U.S. attack against Tehran is far lower than against North Korea, which tested its first nuclear weapon more than six years ago.

As for Syria, the president has issued a "red line" to President Bashar Assad's government concerning chemical weapons that have never been used and are accompanied by no weapon capable of delivering them anywhere near the United States.

U.S. officials fear the increasingly desperate Assad could deploy the weapons in a bid to win a civil war that has left more than 40,000 people dead since March 2011. Or, he could transfer some weapons to anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hezbollah.

Judged on capacity and not intent, either of those scenarios acts would pale in comparison to the North being able to fire a nuclear warhead at the continental United States. But with U.S. officials convinced that Assad's exit may be nearing, the sterner American cautions in Syria may be less likely to be tested. If they are, the United States wouldn't have to worry about nuclear weapons as a counter-threat. 


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