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(2nd LD) Obama makes no mention of N. Korea in State of Union address, despite nuclear test

2016/01/13 13:52

(ATTN: EXPANDS lead; DDS analyst comments)

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Barack Obama made no mention of North Korea in his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, a snub seen as intended to show that Washington remains unfazed by Pyongyang's nuclear test and won't give attention that the regime wants.

Obama had widely been expected to mention North Korea in the annual address for the first time in three years as the speech comes just a week after the North's fourth nuclear test, but the speech text unveiled by the White House included no mention of the communist nation.

Obama last mentioned the North in his State of the Union address in 2013.

In Tuesday's speech, Obama stressed that the U.S. is the most powerful nation on Earth, with an annual defense budget greater than the next eight nations combined, and he said, "No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that's the path to ruin."

   The remark could be seen as a reiteration of the U.S. commitment to South Korea and other allies.

"I know this is a dangerous time. But that's not because of diminished American strength or some looming superpower. In today's world, we're threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states," Obama said.

Obama then listed such challenges as the Middle East, China and Russia.

"Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks. Both al Qaeda and now ISIL (Islamic State) pose a direct threat to our people because in today's world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage," he said.

Obama said that U.S. foreign policy must be focused on the threat from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, but it should not stop. He added that even without IS, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world, such as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Central America, Africa and Asia.

Tuesday's address underlined once again that Obama's priorities are Middle Eastern issues. It also suggests that no major change is expected in Obama's approach to Pyongyang in his final year in office.

"I don't foresee any shift away from strategic patience," Ken Gause, a senior North Korea analyst at CNA Corp., said in a comment to Yonhap News Agency.

Obama has largely ignored the North Korean nuclear issue under his "strategic patience" policy, only urging Pyongyang for years to take concrete steps demonstrating that it is still committed to denuclearization before the six-party talks reopen.

While Obama was preoccupied with Middle East problems, the North has bolstered its nuclear arsenal and honed long-range ballistic missile capabilities. The North has so far conducted four nuclear tests -- in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016 -- and three of them took place while Obama was in office.

Experts now warn that it is only a matter of time until the North develops nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking the U.S. Some have warned that the communist nation's nuclear arsenal could expand to as many as 100 bombs by 2020.

Republican members of Congress slammed the "strategic patience" policy as a failure.

When Obama took over in 2009 from former President George W. Bush, optimism was high for his engagement with Pyongyang as he had vowed during the campaign to use direct dialogue, even with adversaries, to resolve problems.

But North Korea poured cold water over that idea when it carried out its second nuclear test later that year. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of the situation in a memoir that the U.S. "offered an open hand, but North Korea was responding with a closed fist."

   "A more active (U.S.) policy requires DPRK to answer the door civilly when Obama knocks," said Scott Snyder, a senior expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The U.S. has condemned the North's latest nuclear test but expressed skepticism about Pyongyang's claims that it detonated a hydrogen bomb. Still, U.S. officials said they are looking into ways to "squeeze" the North with multilateral and unilateral sanctions.

Earlier Tuesday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a new sanctions bill on the North.

jschang@yna.co.kr

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