By Elise Labott
After North Korea's failed satellite launch in defiance of the international community, U.S. officials and experts say the Obama administration could move away from a policy of engagement toward one of containment.
"I think there is going to be much less time for the DPRK issue in this town," a senior official said about the Obama administration's patience for the issue. "Maybe we say, 'we gave it a shot, and they made a decision that they have to live with.' What are we going to do? We can't keep trying to help them help themselves." Senior American officials said the Obama administration is trying to walk a middle ground in its response to the North Korean failed launch, on the one hand condemning North Korea for its actions, while on the other hand urging for Pyongyang to meet its international commitments.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken with the foreign ministers of China and South Korea and is expected to speak with the Russian and Japanese foreign ministers Friday. Administration officials said there would be a period of consultation with allies, but they would expect a hiatus in efforts to get North Korea back to the table for six-party talks anytime soon - particularly in an election season in which President Obama has been accused by Mitt Romney, his presumptive Republican challenger, of appeasing North Korea.
"Every time we try to take one tiny step forward with North Korea, they revert to their old behavior. Nobody is particularly optimistic about engagement, and you can't ignore bad behavior. The tea leaves are such that you wonder how much political capital you want to invest," a second senior U.S. official said. "But it's something where we would always leave the door slightly open to see if there is ever anything to be done."
"We made a sincere effort, and the response is to completely dis us," another senior U.S. official said. "I just don't see how we can reach out. This missile launch is a slap to the whole international diplomatic efforts."
In lieu of engaging North Korea, officials and experts said the U.S. could refocus on efforts to curb North Korea's weapons program, such as tightening existing sanctions against North Korea and intensifying measures to curb North Korean procurement of sensitive technology, including the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led effort to stem the illicit trafficking of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems. Close to 100 countries are members of the program.
The U.S. will push for tough condemnation of North Korea when the U.N. Security Council meets. Officials say the U.S. would like a resolution with consequences, but that will depend on what China is willing to go along with. Any action from the council probably will not be ready for several days, the officials said.
"We have to see what the traffic will bear," one senior U.S. official said about the possible text to emerge from the U.S.
Washington will also be pressuring China to lean on North Korea and persuade it not to undertake another missile test or a nuclear test and admit inspectors into the country.
"We have to see whether this prompts the Chinese to make a different choice," the official said.
The official said the U.S. has experienced "whiplash" with North Korea's about-face in testing the missile so quickly after the so-called Leap Day deal. The food aid that North Korea was promised is "definitely off for now," the official said.
"We are not going forward with an agreement to provide them with assistance," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "It is impossible to see how we could move forward with the February agreement, given the action that they have taken."
"We can't think in binary terms," a different senior official said. "It isn't either or. North Korea has violated two Security Council resolutions, and we will go forward to impose the necessary consequences and move forward on the pressure track. But the U.S. hasn't flipped a switch and decided it's not going to push for North Korea to work with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) or adhere to its moratoriums on testing. They should do what they said they would do. It's up to Pyongyang now if they want to declare themselves off the hook for that, because we won't."