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(News Focus) Obama's N. Korea policy put to crucial test again
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (Yonhap) -- With yet another nuclear test this week, North Korea has effectively passed the ball into the U.S. court again, diplomatic observers here say.

   In the first weeks of its second term, the Obama administration's so-called strategy patience of waiting for Pyongyang to take steps first to change course is at a crucial juncture.

   North Korea's detonation of a nuclear bomb, the third of its kind, was apparently necessary for not only technical reasons but also political and diplomatic ones.

   It was timed to coincide with Obama's first State of the Union address in his second tenure, and the leadership transitions in South Korea, China and Japan.

   Obama is pushing to reinvigorate his nonproliferation and arms control drive under the vision of a nuclear-free world.

   Experts agree that North Korea's third nuclear experiment itself came as no big surprise.

   A key question is whether the secretive communist nation used a uranium-fueled program or another sophisticated method such as a thermonuclear device.

   "If this is a highly enriched uranium device, it is a big game changer," said Bruce Bechtol, a prominent North Korea specialist who now works as a professor at Angelo State University in Texas.

   "Then, the questions will be have they proliferated this same technology to Iran. Other questions will be were Iranians present at the test," he added.

   Claiming a successful experiment, North Korea only said it used a smaller and miniaturized device without elaborating on the type of fuel.

   Some say Pyongyang is trying to be strategically vague on that as potential leverage. The U.S. and its allies are trying to gather as much information as possible on the experiment, including air samples, a process that takes days or weeks.

   It is known to have conducted plutonium-based nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. It remains unclear whether Pyongyang felt the need for another plutonium test.

   The U.S. is especially concerned about North Korea's uranium enrichment, which is far more difficult to trace than plutonium production.

   Larry Niksch, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that should the nuclear test be of a uranium warhead, it would transform the international community's approach toward the North Korean nuclear crisis.

   "It would tell me that North Korea is about one year away from being able to produce uranium nuclear warheads for mounting on its Nodong and Scud missiles," he said. "It would also tell me that Iran likely will acquire some of North Korea's production of weapons-grade uranium and uranium nuclear warheads."

   Regardless of whether North Korea used uranium or plutonium, he stressed, the denuclearization of North Korea has already become a "policy corpse."

   It would be hard for the Obama administration to keep putting the North Korea problem on the back burner.

   The time has come for Obama to choose between continued strategic patience and a bold initiative for engagement, according to many watchers.

   "North Koreans will want to return to the six-party talks as a recognized nuclear state," Ken Gause, the director of CNA Strategic Studies' International Affairs Group, said.

   "I agree they will probably be willing to engage in arms control talks, not denuclearization," he said.

   U.S. officials ostensibly reiterate all options are on the table, including military action.

   But few believe a military measure against North Korea is realistic, given China's opposition to any step to push its neighboring nation to the brink.

   Chances are high that dialogue with North Korea will resume at some point. History proves the cycle.

   In that sense, Pyongyang has raised the ante.

   An important task for Washington is to well manage the "cooling-off period" in view of the resumption of talks, either bilaterally or multilaterally, some day.

   Taking thorough and painstaking punitive steps against North Korea is significant not only to tackle its nuclear ambitions but also to restart negotiations.

   China is, of course, an important player in tightening sanctions on North Korea and restarting talks with it.

   Analysts are cautiously optimistic about China's role.

   "There are signs that China is listening more to U.S. concerns about North Korea's nuclear provocations," Gause said. "A goal must be the United States developing common positions with China, along with South Korea and Japan making it harder for North Korea to play against the United States."

   Denny Roy, a senior analyst at the East-West Center, said North Korea's latest provocation may change China's policy on the communist ally.

   "There is at least serious discussion in China of taking a tougher position with Pyongyang," he said.

   A diplomatic source said China has served as a route for North Korea's illicit trade of sensitive nuclear and missile materials.

   If China cooperates in efforts to curb the imports and exports of such items, including centrifuges, to and from North Korea, it would be of great help to slow Pyongyang's weapons of mass destruction programs, the source said.

   lcd@yna.co.kr
leechidong@gmail.com
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