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US seeks low-key pressure on N.Korea

14 april 2012, 10:00
A portrai of late Norh Korean president Kim il-Sung (L) and his son Kim Jong-il. ©AFP
A portrai of late Norh Korean president Kim il-Sung (L) and his son Kim Jong-il. ©AFP
North Korea's defiant and apparently hapless rocket launch poses a challenge for world powers -- how to condemn the communist state without setting off a chain reaction of new tensions, AFP reports.

The United States and its allies had threatened action at the UN Security Council if North Korea went ahead. Yet policymakers quietly said they would seek a united but understated approach to avoid any fanning of the flames.

The White House issued a measured initial statement, criticizing the "provocative" launch but saying President Barack Obama had been "prepared to engage constructively" and not explicitly announcing a suspension of food aid.

Foreign ministers of the Group of Eight major economies, who just hours earlier had demanded that Pyongyang call off its launch, called for "appropriate" action at the Security Council without more specifics.

The cautious course comes from a reading of the psychology of North Korea, one of the world's most isolated states which had vowed "unprecedented" celebrations for the centennial of the birth of its founder Kim Il-Sung.

North Korea went ahead with the launch, which it conceded failed to put a satellite in orbit, despite rare criticism from top ally China and an accord weeks earlier with Washington to freeze its nuclear and missile programs.

The regime -- now led by young Kim Jong-Un -- has already hinted that it would conduct a third nuclear test in response to any US countermeasures, in what could be a replay of showdowns in 2006 and 2009.

Few expect that the Obama administration, which pursued the February 29 agreement with North Korea after years of hesitation, to race back to diplomacy with the regime. Instead, it could return to its former approach of "strategic patience," or waiting for North Korea to make the next move.

Ralph Cossa, president of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expected the UN action to be "fairly muted," perhaps the form of a statement that declares North Korea -- one of the world's most sanctioned countries -- in violation of past resolutions.

"There really isn't an awful lot additional we can do," Cossa said.

"The North Koreans will use whatever response comes out of the Security Council as an excuse to do whatever else they were already planning on doing, which I would guess includes a nuclear test," he said.

"It's part of the North Koreans' game to play people against one another and it's been a very successful game," he said.

John Delury, an assistant professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, said that the United States should be mindful of internal dynamics in the dynastic North which is going through only its second-ever transition following leader Kim Jong-Il's death in December.

"I just don't see how it helps to craft the strongest possible response to this launch because you really can't add to sanctions," he said.

"The issue is how, at a very transitional moment in their history, to try to keep pushing North Korea back on the moderate track. That's going to mean sucking up moments like this," he said.

Any effort to punish North Korea in concrete ways could hit a roadblock with China, which holds veto power on the Security Council.

While China supported key resolutions after North Korea's last two nuclear tests, US-based experts widely see it as balking at any action that threatens the stability of the state separating it from US allies South Korea and Japan.

But Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank, said the United States could seek further UN sanctions by targeting nations found to cooperate with North Korea -- including customers for its weapons.

"If you don't seek punishment for a violation, then in essence you might as well rip up the agreement," Klingner said.

Obama's rivals criticized him over North Korea's launch. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said that Obama tried to "appease the regime with a food aid deal that proved to be as naive as it was short-lived."

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