President Obama, Are You Ready?

By Thomas DeFrank, New York Daily News - April 6, 2009

WASHINGTON - North Korea's rocket launch is the early diplomatic challenge Vice President Biden famously warned about last fall. Unfortunately for President Obama, Pyongyang's nuclear aspirations are a far more intractable problem than the average global crisis.

Strongman Kim Jong Il's in-your-face defiance during Obama's first overseas trip has at least one silver lining: It lends gravity to Obama's insistence in meetings with Chinese and Russian leaders last week that the North's provocations are reckless and intolerable.

Beyond ratcheting up the rhetoric, however, Obama's punitive options are limited.

"There's not a lot we can do beyond expressing our outrage and pushing our allies to be less timid," a top U.S. policymaker told the Daily News a few days before the launch.

Experts say military retaliation, like a naval blockade or surgical strike against weapons facilities, are nonstarters. Even the more muscular Bush administration recognized such tactics might trigger an invasion of South Korea by the North's million-man army.

Moreover, the Pentagon is stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan to cope with another war on the Korean peninsula.

That essentially leaves more aggressive diplomacy by Obama with Russia and particularly the China, North Korea's primary protector at the United Nations.

Last week in London, Obama lobbied Chinese President Hu Jintao to press Kim to stop misbehaving - and endorse more stringent sanctions if he doesn't.

"The Chinese ... don't want to see the Japanese get nuclear weapons," said ex-Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank. "We need to tell the Chinese if North Korea keeps it up we're not going to be able to hold Japan back."

Sunday's liftoff will test whether Obama's successful charm offensive during his European trip translates into greater clout for American statecraft.

It's an unwelcome front-burner problem for an agenda clogged with major issues, notably the domestic economic crisis.

"With everything else on his plate, this is something Obama would rather not have to deal with, but he has to do it" said Robert Jervis, a political science professor at Columbia University. "It's a real problem for him. He's going to face some hard choices."

And, as with the economy, he can blame this headache on his predecessor for only so long.

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