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Obama faces an age-old dilemma over how to deal with North Korea

US President Barack Obama faces a dilemma shared by many of his predecessors as he considers his options how the United States should react to North Korea's latest provocation.

US and North Korean flags

North Korea's latest act has brought it closer to US action

Obama will be pondering the same question which has puzzled every US president since 1953: How do you solve a problem like Korea?

The divided Korean Peninsula has provided every sitting US president with a dilemma ever since Dwight Eisenhower brokered an armistice in the Korean War. That act paused but did not officially end a conflict which had raged for almost three years and cost some 36,000 American lives. Due to the fact that no official peace deal was agreed 58 years ago, the two Koreas have been living under the shadow of a potential return to war ever since Eisenhower's intervention.

America's involvement in the war that divided Korea along the 38th parallel also continues to this day due to the commitment of the US to protect South Korea from any aggression by its communist neighbors in the North. Around 29,000 US troops remain deployed in South Korea.

Presidents Johnson, Ford and Carter all had run-ins with North Korea during their times in office while the more contemporary administrations of Bill Clinton and both Bush presidencies have had to deal with the North's growing nuclear ambitions.

While skirmishes in the seas around the Korean Peninsula and small scale attacks on land gave the immediate post-war presidents a real headache, the last three US leaders have found that the increasingly unpredictable North, with its now indisputable yet crude nuclear weapons, has become a completely different problem. But while the nature of its threat has changed, the question as to how best to deal with North Korea endures.

Several experts quoted in European media said they believed the North only developed its nuclear program as leverage. It was a way of blackmailing the West into concessions on sanctions and aid. But White House incumbents have so far chosen not to find out whether the North's regime is prepared to use its arsenal as more than just a bargaining chip.

While the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by the North and the responding fire from the South on Tuesday was the most serious exchange between the two Koreas in over a year - the disputed sinking of the South's corvette "Cheonan" in March aside - this incident is just the latest in a long line of skirmishes. However, the bombing of Yeonpyeong comes just a week after the North revealed a nuclear enrichment facility to a group of American scientists so advanced that it shocked the US.

North's nuclear capability changes complexion of crisis

South Korean Marines come out from their armored vehicle operation during a joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise

Any military action would likely come from the South

President Obama is honor-bound to protect South Korea, as his predecessors have been, and as such has strongly affirmed his commitment to defend it as part of the alliance which stretches back to the Korean War.

The nuclear-powered USS Washington aircraft carrier was deployed to the Yellow Sea off the coast of South Korea on Wednesday. But with North Korea's nuclear capability more advanced than first thought, the US president is unwilling to provoke any escalation and has chosen not to reposition any of the 29,000 US troops in the South closer to the de-militarized zone (DMZ).

Obama's options are limited, said Glyn Ford, a North East Asia specialist and author. Many consider it highly unlikely that the US will engage in any military action against the North, partly because of its nuclear capability and partly because it has a huge army of 9.45 million troops. If the US commitment to South Korea's defense is to be invoked, it will most likely come in the form of support, not direct intervention.

"The military option is still on the table for the US but we're a long way off from that," Ford told Deutsche Welle.

Ford said records showed that the US was planning preemptive strikes on the North's nuclear facilities back in 1994, so this had been considered before. But the US was not keen to engage in this and has pulled its troops back further into the South.

"If things do escalate, however, it would be easier if it was the South Koreans who took the initiative, backed up by US hardware," Ford said. "It is very unlikely the US would commit ground troops and its umbrella protection policy would probably only stretch to supporting South Korean forces."

Sanctions and the freezing of assets also seem to have little effect on the regime given that Pyongyang exists largely outside the system of international financial and diplomatic institutions - unlike countries like Iran, which have been subject to US pressure through economic channels.

US unlikely to stage attacks in China's backyard

President Barack Obama with China's President Hu Jintao

Obama wants to maintain friendly relations with China

The US is also unlikely to want to anger China, North Korea's only international ally and economic supporter. While China has called for restraint on the Korean Peninsula, Beijing has refused to issue an outright condemnation of the bombing of Yeonpyeong, even as veiled calls to do so from the United States and Japan began to circulate. However, while Beijing remains outwardly supportive, it is thought that China is far from happy with the actions of its disruptive neighbor.

"China will actually be quite upset with North Korea over this latest incident so the Chinese wouldn't mind seeing North Korea punished for this," said Ford. "However, it is unlikely that they would protest too much if it was the South Koreans who retaliated but it would be a different matter if the United States got involved. That would be quite problematic."

Howard Loewen, an Asia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said China played a vital role in the current diplomatic initiative together with the US and South Korea that aimed at reviving the Six-Party talks with North Korea instead of engaging in a military conflict.

"Yet, if hostilities should increase and if South Korea would ask for American help, the US would be obliged to defend Korea," Loewen told Deutsche Welle. "The US would thus interfere to stabilize a destabilized region. The reaction of China to such a move would depend on its diplomatic interaction with the US and South Korea beforehand."

Still, Loewen said he did not think that the united efforts by China, the US and South Korea would be fruitless.

"Due to significant economic interdependencies, all the major players in the region will put all their efforts into a peaceful solution of the current crisis," he said.

Asian expectations put pressure on Obama

A South Korean watches a television broadcasting about a North Korea missile launch

North Korea's threat could force the South to act alone

In its role as a counterweight to Chinese power in the region, any reaffirmation of US commitment, even through diplomatic means, could have a galvanizing effect on America's Asian allies.

"The Asian allies expect the US to act as a smooth and diplomatic balance toward China's rise in the region," said Loewen. "Underlining its commitment to South Korea shows the other allies that they can rely on the US. If a war situation emerges, the actual US engagement will depend on the interaction of the major powers in the region and US domestic politics."

But with the US unlikely to take military action against North Korea, some experts believe that its commitment toward its allies in Asia may be seen by some countries as wavering. The knock-on effect on regional stability could be just as damaging in the long term as an air strike.

Both South Korea and Japan have long been opposed to developing their own nuclear weapons, despite the threat emanating from North Korea, instead relying on their conventional forces and US commitments to their defense. Should the US weigh up the myriad potential problems arising from launching strikes on North Korea and chose to pursue different routes, some experts say South Korea and even Japan - the victim of two nuclear strikes at the end of World War II - would reconsider their position.

"Korean and Japanese plans of going it alone in this respect have always been mitigated by the US government," Loewen said. "Surely, if the conflict between the two Koreas would escalate and no American support would follow, both states would consider other defensive options. However, this is not very likely."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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