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N. Korea nuke blast tests US options

- Obama aides forced to rework speech, Security Council goes into huddle

New York, Feb. 12: The big losers in North Korea’s third nuclear test today are the fashion industry.

The cacophony to isolate Pyongyang further and prevent the test’s ripples from being enlarged in Tehran will end the main talking point about the “Hermit Kingdom” in the last one year: its attractive, young First Lady’s Dior clutch bags and her stylish pant suits in a country that previously made a virtue of drabness.

The UN Security Council began informal, closed door consultations early this morning on what to do with a defiant Pyongyang. The Council formally convened later in the day under the rotating presidency of South Korea, which has the biggest stake in the North’s latest defiance of UN demands to shut down its nuclear programme.

In December, the UN imposed new sanctions on North Korea after it launched a rocket that the world body said was actually a banned missile test. Today’s nuclear explosion with “great explosive power”, according to the state-run Central News Agency, is believed to be in retaliation for those sanctions and threats to impose more of the same.

Americans woke up to news of the test, which upset Barack Obama’s carefully laid plans to savour his second term victory with the traditional State of the Union address on Capitol Hill during prime time television.

The President had hoped to tackle jobs and gun control in his address tonight, but he will now have to deal with an unexpected Asian crisis next door to South Korea where the US has troops since the Korean war from 1950 to 1953.

White House spokesman Jay Carney had told reporters before news of the North Korean nuclear test that “the core emphasis” in Obama’s State of the Union speeches throughout his presidency “remains the same and will remain the same, which is the need to make the economy work for the middle class”. Obama’s aides were furiously reworking his address to include North Korea at the time of writing.

Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, believed to be bigger than its previous two explosions in 2006 and 2009, may also complicate confirmations of Obama’s new defence secretary and director of Central Intelligence. A vote on the former, Chuck Hagel, opposed by Republicans collectively, is scheduled to go ahead this afternoon at the time of writing.

Unlike the Americans, South Koreans do not appear to have been taken by surprise by Pyongyang’s new test. It could not have been a coincidence that South Korea’s foreign minister, Sung-hwan Kim, arrived in New York ahead of the test ready to preside over today’s Security Council meeting under his country’s presidency.

Unlike North Korea, which will be represented in public events only by its permanent representative, the South will have a full court press with its foreign minister personally presenting his case at the world’s diplomatic high table.

Sung’s one-time predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, now the UN secretary general, swung into action as soon as news broke about the North Korean nuclear explosion. He issued a statement which described Pyongyang’s action as “a clear and grave violation of the relevant Security Council resolutions.

It is deplorable that Pyongyang defied the strong and unequivocal call from the international community to refrain from any further provocative measures.”

In a clear signal that he expected the Security Council to be firm against the North, Ban said he is “confident that the Security Council will remain united and take appropriate action”.

Beyond the immediate responses, the worry for the Americans and the South Koreans in the long run is that North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, has proved with today’s test and the rocket launch in December that he is no milk sop despite his age and his private Swiss education. The newest ruler of the Kim dynasty may prove as hard a nut to crack for the West as his father and grandfather.

The timing of today’s test will not be lost on Pyongyang’s detractors. Apart from upsetting Obama’s apple cart, the explosion was timed to coincide with the previous ruler Kim Jong Il’s birthday which falls on Saturday.

The test and the birth anniversary of the late “Dear Leader” will offer twin opportunities for North Korea’s heavily indoctrinated people to celebrate. The current Kim needs popular mobilisation on issues of national pride at a time when dire reports of famine and malnutrition are coming out of the North.

Another consideration in Pyongyang may have been that South Korea’s incoming President, Park Geun-hye, will take office in a few days. By celebrating the nuclear explosion, Kim Jong-un would be able to deflect domestic attention from democracy taking root across the divided peninsula.

The world is observing the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean war this year. Belligerence from Pyongyang would serve to reinforce its positions on Korean reunification and remind the world that Korea is anything but settled.

A big worry in Washington and at the UN will be that as North Korea improves its nuclear arsenal, there would be temptations for Tehran and Pyongyang to cooperate. Some US strategists believe that Iran which is improving its uranium enrichment capabilities could share the technology with North Korea which has so far based its nuclear programme on plutonium.

There are also fears that by cooperating closely with North Korea, Iran may be in a position eventually to build a nuclear arsenal without ever testing, but relying on shared North Korean explosions for its own experience.

 
 
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