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Why North Korea's Antics Are Good For Obama

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Obama has more foreign policy luck. The first was a dramatic hostage situation on the high seas that ended with a Rainbow Six-style sniping of three Somali pirates. Now comes the reliably pugnacious Kim Jong-Il, using his signature saber-rattling (though admittedly somewhat heightened rhetoric, even for his standards) to shift the international focus from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka back onto the Hermit Kingdom. However, following its initial hullabaloo, the current standoff may be a foreign policy windfall for the Obama administration by uniting typically disparate regional players. The developing situation appears increasingly like an Axis and Allies scenario, but with an Axis of only one who may have finally overstepped.

As I wrote earlier this week: "Although many news sources are emphasizing North Korea's recent nuclear test as a "3:00 A.M." moment for President Obama, it is just as much the case for China as it grows into its nascent international role." And indeed, as the standoff continues, pressure on global players other than the US has increased even further, especially in Beijing and Moscow. This is because the US response is more or less preordained, leaving the ball in China and Russia's court. There is an established US protocol for responding to North Korean aggression that includes, but is not limited to: calling for stricter UN Security Council sanctions; freezing North Korean assets and blocking its access to foreign financial markets; and enlisting the cooperation of the problem state's closest allies. In the current situation, it is this final protocol that matters most.

The London G-20 Summit in April this year was a diplomatic chumfest that at times reached the level of farce. However it was also a momentous occasion to introduce Obama to a star-struck international community. Before the end of day one, the new administration had already met and hashed out optimistic agreements with both Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dimitri Medvedev, marking a promising departure from strained relations in years past.

Obama and Hu's first meeting ended with an agreement to create a US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue to address China's disproportionately small pull in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to plan for the possibility of joint financial bailouts. Likewise, Obama and Medvedev's meeting ended with pledges to pursue joint initiatives later this year meant to improve ties, and, more specifically, to reduce nuclear stockpiles (an issue with direct propinquity to the North Korea problem).

Both China and Russia have in the past been complacent towards North Korean aggression. Though Kim's missile launches and nuclear tests are surely a diplomatic annoyance, it is never enough for Beijing or Moscow to issue more than a verbal wrist-slap to their vestigial Soviet-era ally. But this time is different, and the advantage is all Obama's. Indeed, neither country actually wants a nuclear armed North Korea to join the geopolitical chess match. The global financial meltdown squeezing GDP growth worldwide, and both countries now following up on G-20 pledges for better ties, all bodes well for a concerted, harsh response that finally goes beyond just words. Indeed, the current crisis allows for unprecedented cooperation between global players that could lead to good faith dealings with other prickly issues, such as global security, the economy and climate change.

With the mandate that a unified front will provide, harsh sanctions specifically targeting Kim's military will finally be feasible, as will a full-court press on North Korean vessels under the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) with South Korea onboard after years of reticence. Most essential of all, however, is the possibility that China will finally close off trade and aid channels that have for years propped up the North's regime. Admittedly, such additional provocations could lead the DPRK to back up its shrill rhetoric with violence. But multiple experts, speaking to the Washington Post Wednesday, for their part, agreed that a large-scale clash is extremely unlikely.

All things considered, much good could come out of the current crisis. Sure, Obama didn't ask for any of this. But if the pieces continue to fall into place against the Hermit King, this week's mess could be next week's fortuitous moment.

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