"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 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.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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