Security Council swiftly condemns North Korea's nuclear test.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
May 26 2009 6:42 AM

No Good Options To Deal With North Korea

All the papers lead with the swift international condemnation of North Korea's second nuclear bomb test. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council denounced the test, calling it a "clear violation" of a 2006 resolution. Everyone points out that the quick condemnation from Russia and China was particularly significant, particularly when compared with the long discussions over a response after North Korea launched a long-range missile in April. President Obama called the test a "blatant violation of international law" and said the international community "must take action in response." The Wall Street Journal talks to a senior administration official who said the White House is optimistic that the Security Council will impose strong sanctions, partly due to China's reaction.

The Washington Post hears word that the White House was informed about the test around an hour before it happened, and officials had received several briefings in the past week about the possibility of such an event. The Los Angeles Times points out that while officials insisted Monday's events "did not catch them by surprise," it's bad timing for an administration dealing with so many international crises that it "has yet to develop its formal policy on North Korea." USA Today points out that North Korea's move came a mere five days after Iran carried out its own missile test and might be a sign that the two governments "could be testing the limits of a relatively new president who has emphasized diplomacy over military might." Indeed, the New York Times notes that Obama's aides are well aware everyone is likely to see this as an early test for the young administration, and the White House is determined to "organize a significantly stronger response" than the Bush administration did after North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006. Early morning wire reports reveal that North Korea launched two more short-range missiles today.

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The WP says that North Korea's test "appears not to have been a significant technical advance over its first underground test three years ago." Although the isolationist regime insisted the test was more successful than the one in 2006, experts say it showed how "North Koreans have not yet mastered the technology of creating a reliable nuclear bomb." It could take weeks to have a reliable estimate on how big the test was, but several papers have some initial analysis. The NYT hears from an administration official that the blast was "a several kiloton event," the WSJ talks to a senior Pentagon official who called it a "relatively small" bomb of around 1.5 kilotons, while an expert tells the WPthe test was in the range of 2 to 4 kilotons. That would make it "two to five times" more powerful than the 2006 test but still far less than would be expected if the regime had mastered the technology of creating a reliable nuclear bomb. "You would expect 10 to 20 times that yield," one expert tells the Post. "These guys have not solved the problem." Still, it seems certain that, however small, it still represented a step forward in the country's nuclear capabilities.

Despite the fact that the world powers seem to be pulling together to condemn North Korea's actions, administration officials readily acknowledge that they have limited options in how to proceed. Trying to get North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons is something that has eluded previous administrations. "We're back to the same problem Bush had," one intelligence official said. "The threat is not that they will shoot off a nuclear weapon; it's that they will sell nuclear material." The NYT details that the "most powerful untapped sanction" available to the administration may be one that was authorized after the 2006 test that permits nations to inspect all shipping into and out of the country for nuclear materials. "Other than having the Chinese cut off their oil, it might be the only step that would show them we are serious," a senior official said.

The WSJ hears word that the Pentagon believes North Korea purposefully picked Memorial Day for the test to send a message to the United States. "America was going to be memorializing the military and our own history, and boom, they pull this one off," a military official said. But others aren't quite so sure the communist regime's primary purpose was really to send a message to the United States. In a front-page analysis, the LAT says that while North Korea's previous tests and missile launches "had a ring of foot-stamping about them" because they could clearly be seen as demands for more attention from Washington, yesterday's "motives seem more complex." Particularly when considering that North Korea appears to have become more assertive in its foreign policy after the country's leader, Kim Jong-il, is believed to have suffered a stroke in August. In addition to considering the international dimensions, some analysts believe the test was Kim's way of boosting support from the military, maybe to ensure that power remains in his family. In its own analysis, the NYT echoes the belief that the test might have been a way for Kim to show solidarity with the military but also notes that some think the "intended audience was North Korea's largely impoverished population." The thinking is that Kim might have wanted North Koreans to believe that he managed to create a powerful country during his years in power.

The real question now is what the young administration will choose to do when confronted with "just the sort of national security crisis that President Obama's campaign rivals warned he would face early in his term," as USAT points out. Besides the fact that there might not be any good options, many believe Iran is going to be taking careful notes to figure out how Obama will deal with future confrontations. "I think North Korea and Iran are very closely comparing strategies," one expert tells USAT. "And whether the moves were coordinated or not, they are watching how the U.S. responds to each."

Faced with such complicated questions, the WP's editorial page says it's time to "call Mr. Kim's bluff," and Obama "should simply decline to treat North Korea as a crisis, or even as a matter of urgency." That hardly means ignoring the country or cutting off communication, but there should be "no new economic favors to the North, no further political recognition, no grand visits by the secretary of state to Pyongyang."

Moving on to other stories, the WP fronts the growing fears that the Federal Reserve's "efforts to steer the economy away from a 1930s-era depression would push the country toward '70s-style inflation." The good news that has been coming out of the economy lately is making these fears more pronounced since experts warn that the Fed might have to make a choice between "propping up credit markets today and fighting inflation tomorrow." Considering there's a significant lag time between a change in Fed policy and when it starts showing up in the economy, the central bank might have to act while unemployment is still high and there are still problems in the financial sector, a politically unpalatable option.

In an interesting front-page piece, the NYT takes a look at how service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been given CT scans and autopsies, something that was hardly ever done in previous wars. The information the military has been able to obtain from these procedures has helped it develop better equipment and get useful insight into how medical equipment used in a war zone could be improved. Families of the deceased are informed of the autopsies, and approximately 85 percent to 90 percent request reports.

The WP reports that Obama is likely to announce later this week that he will create a new "cyber czar," a senior official who will be in charge of figuring out ways to protect government and private computer networks. The official will have a broad mandate to deal with a range of issues and will probably be a member of the National Security Council while reporting both to the national security adviser and to the president's senior economic adviser. But the ultimate goal is that this new czar would be able to "pick up the phone and contact the president directly, if need be," an administration official said.

The WSJ takes a look at how the "recession is cramping the style of hip-hop artists and wannabes" because many are finding it difficult to afford the "bling" that has long been used "to project an aura of outsized wealth." Celebrity jewelers say artists are asking for less expensive materials, and some even say that cubic zirconia has become a popular stand-in. While it's true that few have ever been able to afford a piece of jewelry like Lil Jon's famous necklace that spells out "CRUNK AIN'T DEAD" and contains 3,756 round-cut white diamonds, jewelers say inferior-quality materials have never been more widespread. But don't count on a rap about cubic zirconia hitting the top 20 any time soon. "If you admit you wear fake jewelry, it is over for you," says a man who has interviewed many rappers. "It's like bragging you drive a Lamborghini when you really drive a Toyota."

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