Ahn Young-joon, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama reacted sharply to North Korea's nuclear test Tuesday, promising swift international action to bring the rogue communist regime in line. The detonation came hours before the president's State of the Union address, where he was expected to touch on U.S. plans to reduce its nuclear arsenal.
In a statement, Obama called Pyongyang's third nuclear test in seven years a "highly provocative act" that threatens U.S. security and international peace. The reaction from the White House was significantly stronger than it was after North Korea's long-range missile test in December, when the administration only promised "appropriate action" alongside America's allies.
"The danger posed by North Korea's threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community," Obama said in a statement early Tuesday. "The United States will also continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies."
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by telephone with the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan after the test, as well as China, and Obama called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to assure him the U.S. would help defend his country.
North Korea said it successfully detonated a miniaturized nuclear device at a northeastern test site Tuesday. South Korean, U.S. and Japanese seismic monitoring agencies said they detected an earthquake in North Korea with a magnitude between 4.9 and 5.2.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said the test was conducted safely but with "great explosive power." The test counters the "ferocious" U.S. hostility that undermines the North's peaceful, sovereign right to launch satellites, it argued. Last month, North Korea's National Defense Commission said the United States was its prime target for a nuclear test and long-range rocket launches.
"These provocations do not make North Korea more secure," Obama said. "Far from achieving its stated goal of becoming a strong and prosperous nation, North Korea has instead increasingly isolated and impoverished its people through its ill-advised pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery."
The Obama administration's options for a response are limited — even though it is committed to protecting America's key Asian allies, South Korea and Japan.
The U.S. already maintains severe unilateral sanctions against North Korea, and commerce between the two countries is nearly nonexistent. Tougher global sanctions are dependent on the participation of China, Pyongyang's primary trading partner, but Beijing has resisted measures that would cut off North Korea's economy completely.
At the U.N., the Security Council opened an emergency meeting Tuesday and condemned North Korea's action. But any new, binding international sanctions will now have to be worked out.
More forceful U.S. consequences, in the form of a military response, are highly unlikely even though the United States remains technically at war with the notoriously unpredictable North Koreans, whose opaque leadership has confounded successive American administrations. Only the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War keeps the U.S. and the North from hostilities, and some 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea to deter potential aggression.
But with the South Korean capital of Seoul just 40 miles south of the nuclear-armed North's border and its million-man army, the risks involved in any military action are great. And just raising the rhetoric can even serve as a reward to North Korea's attention-seeking government, which starves its citizens while seeking to leverage any military advance it makes into much-needed aid.
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