Bully pulpit, meet the nuclear pulpit. Hours before President Barack Obama planned to deliver his State of the Union, North Korea announced overnight Tuesday that it had tested a nuclear device in response to what it described as American hostility. The defiant move opened the president up to Republican criticism on foreign policy.
Obama promptly led a chorus of international condemnation, warning that the “ill-advised” and “highly provocative” test and a Dec. 12 ballistic missile launch “do not make North Korea more secure.”
“The danger posed by North Korea’s threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community,” the president said in a written statement released by the White House.
The timing was no accident. North Korea’s Stalinist state, technically still at war with South Korea, frequently tries to seize global attention with threats to turn that country's capital, Seoul, into a “lake of fire.” North Korea also celebrated July 4, 2006, with a ballistic missile launch.
One week ago, it released a bizarre video showing a city resembling New York under missile attack—to the strains of “We Are the World” on the piano. (It could also be an early present for North Korea leader Kim Jong Un's late father, Kim Jong Il, whose birthday officially falls on Feb. 16).
Administration officials worry that North Korea may be making progress towards constructing a nuclear bomb small enough to fit on a ballistic missile that might someday be able to reach the continental U.S. Obama, like Bush before him, has tightened economic sanctions on the regime in Pyongyang while working with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea in the so-called “Six-Party talks” to pressure the North. Of those countries, China is often described as holding the key: It is North Korea’s last patron in the international community. And it sharply condemned the test.
In Washington, Obama vowed that the U.S. will "continue to take steps necessary" to defend itself and its allies.
“We will strengthen close coordination with allies and partners and work with our Six-Party partners, the United Nations Security Council, and other U.N. member states to pursue firm action,” he declared.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s office confirmed that America’s spy agencies believe North Korea “probably conducted an underground nuclear explosion” with a yield of “approximately several kilotons.” (One kiloton = the approximate power of 1,000 tons of dynamite.)
In Congress, leading Republicans responded by criticizing North Korea—and Obama, who planned to promote nuclear arms reductions in his State of the Union speech.
“It is unfortunate that despite repeated overtures, the North Korean government has chosen to further isolate itself and increasingly destabilize the region,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif. "It is also unfortunate that on the same day the president of the United States plans to announce further reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons, we see another hostile regime unimpressed by his example.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said the test shows North Korea isn’t about to give up on its nuclear program and warned it “demands the Obama administration’s attention.”
Royce said Obama’s North Korea policy has “failed” and urged tougher sanctions aimed at “crippling” its military capabilities.