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Obama: No Easy Fix For N. Korea Threat

Seoul, South Korea — With North Korea making potential preparations for another underground nuclear test, President Obama said Friday that he saw no “magic bullet” to influence an already isolated nation whose advancing weapons program poses a “direct threat” to the United States.

A new nuclear test would provide the North with a key measuring post as it tries to create a reliable, miniaturized atomic weapon — one small enough to mount on a long-range missile that could strike the United States. The detonation would also highlight the dilemma facing the Obama administration, which has devoted relatively little political capital to addressing Pyongyang’s weapons program after years of failed diplomatic gambits.

“North Korea is already the most isolated country in the world — by far,” Obama said in a joint news conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the presidential palace in Seoul. “Its people suffer terribly because of the decisions its leaders have made. And we are not going to find a magic bullet that solves this problem overnight.”

Obama’s arrival in Seoul coincided with a flourish of activity at North Korea’s mountainous nuclear test site, potential preparations for a fourth underground blast. Officials in Seoul cautioned that the apparent work — picked up by commercial satellites — could be a bluff or an attempt to stoke anxiety in the region.

Park said Friday that the North is “fully ready” to carry out the test technologically and could do so whenever it makes the political decision. Another test would “fundamentally change” the security situation in the region, she said without elaborating. Park also speculated that other Asian countries could join in a “nuclear arms race” as North Korea’s capabilities expand.

Under leader Kim Jong Un, the North has vowed to never relinquish its weapons, even altering its constitution to say it was a “nuclear-armed state.”

Analysts say the United States has based its “strategic patience” policy on the hope that North Korea, facing isolation and sanctions, would rethink its combativeness. Instead, Pyongyang has managed key advancements in its weapons program despite sanctions designed to cut off funding for such development. And it has repeatedly tested ballistic missiles and atomic weapons in the face of international warnings and condemnation.

Washington and Pyongyang have gone more than two years without dialogue, and the six-party talks — a multi-nation process designed to coax Pyongyang’s denuclearization — have been dormant since 2008. The Pentagon said this year in a report to Congress that Pyongyang’s weapons tests were a way of “gaining international recognition and de facto acceptance as a nuclear state.”

“The door has essentially been left open to (North Korea) by the ineffectiveness of previous diplomatic efforts,” said Evans Revere, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former diplomat who negotiated often with the North. “And they’re taking full advantage of that.”

Obama said Friday that the United States and its allies could respond to additional provocations by imposing sanctions that have “even more bite” and by highlighting the North’s horrific rights violations. Park and Obama also announced Friday that they were considering delaying a plan that would give Seoul control of its own troops during a war on the Korean Peninsula, rather than place them under U.S. command.

The transfer had been planned for December 2015. But the handoff has drawn criticism from some conservative South Koreans, who say deterrence of the North could falter if the militarily superior United States cedes a degree of control. Obama said Friday that the United States and South Korea also planned to enhance the “interoperability” of their missile defense systems.

The North’s primary goal, officials in Seoul and Washington say, is to construct a reliable nuclear-tipped missile. This requires both a miniaturized atomic weapon and an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching orbit and reentering the atmosphere. Though intelligence officials have mixed assessments about Pyongyang’s capabilities, even the most generous assessment concedes that the nuclear missile would have a low reliability.

North Korea has only once placed a long-range missile into orbit, after numerous high-profile failures. North Korea said last year that it had successfully manufactured a smaller — or miniaturized — warhead, but there has been no way to verify that assertion. Previous blasts were relatively modest, several times smaller than the devices the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.