WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's hopes of using diplomacy to defuse an unpredictable, nuclear-equipped North Korea fizzled with that country's failed rocket launch, leaving Obama with little to show for his overture to the new North Korean leader.
The launch Friday, in defiance of U.S. and international demands, scuttled a once-promising deal to exchange much-needed U.S. food aid for nuclear concessions and the prospect of broader disarmament talks.
Obama had insisted that "bad behavior" would not be rewarded and now has few options to restart negotiations without appearing to let North Korea off the hook.
Obama told an interviewer Friday that the launch would only serve to further cut off North Korea from the rest of the world and shows the regime is willing to waste money on "rockets that don't work at a time when their people are starving."
He said in the interview with the Spanish-language TV network "Telemundo" that the U.S. would work with other nations to further isolate North Korea and "keep the pressure on them," although he was not specific.
Almost immediately after the launch, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney accused Obama of trying to appease North Korea by dangling a food aid deal "that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived."
The White House responded tartly.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes was asked whether the launch represented a failure of administration efforts to engage the North's new rulers.
"Absolutely not," he said. "What this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past."
North Korea's attempt to launch a rocket with what the North Koreans said was a satellite attached ended in failure when the rocket disintegrated over the Yellow Sea. Western nations have said the launch was a cover for the testing of a long-range missile, and worries remain about North Korea's nuclear program amid reports that it may be planning another atomic test soon.
The Obama administration is trying to shift its foreign policy emphasis toward Asia, home of most of the world's fastest-developing economies and markets, and had hoped that even modest improvements in relations with North Korea could help.
The impoverished, heavily militarized autocracy is a looming threat to U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan. It is an irritant in U.S. relations with regional powerhouse China because of China's role as protector of its fellow communist state.
A sudden leadership change in North Korea seemed to improve the odds of better footing with the regime, one of the pariah nations former President George W. Bush placed on his "axis of evil" 10 years ago. The food deal reached Feb. 29 was supposed to open the way for new talks that could eventually broker an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the proliferation risk it poses.
North Korea had promised to suspend uranium enrichment at a major facility and refrain from missile and nuclear tests. The announcement would have opened the way for international inspections for the North's nuclear program, which has gone unmonitored for years.
North Korea has tested rockets that could theoretically reach the western edges of the United States, although the failed launch calls into question the reliability of its larger rockets and its missile technology. In that sense, the failed launch is a relief for the Obama administration, since the pressure for harsh retaliation or punishment is lessened, and the failure may weaken North Korea's sales pitch to other nations seeking missile technology.
Obama noted in the Telemundo interview that "they've been trying to launch missiles like this for over a decade now, and they don't seem to be real good at it."
Rhodes said the launch proved the North Koreans cannot be trusted to "keep their commitments," thus making new talks pointless for now. The U.S. has not said when it might try again, but few analysts expect significant movement until after the presidential election in November.
Obama has been wary of North Korea's history of promising more than it delivers in arms control and other engagements with the U.S., and spoiling talks once they begin by launching rockets or conducting nuclear weapons tests. But he issued a direct invitation and challenge to North Korea's leaders while visiting South Korea last month.
"I want to speak directly to the leadership in Pyongyang," Obama said hours after a tour of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea that was heavy with Cold War symbolism. He offered a promise of peace and said the country is backing itself into a corner.
"Instead of the dignity you desire, you are more isolated," he said then. "Instead of earning the respect of the world, you have been met with strong sanctions. You can continue down the road you are on, but we know where that leads."
Obama also singled out China in unusually blunt terms that day, saying it could and should do more to rein in North Korea.
Neither gambit worked.
Now prospects for a more peaceful North Korea stand at or behind where they were when Obama took office in 2009. North Korea walked away from international disarmament talks that year and conducted a second nuclear test. In 2010, North Korea was blamed for the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship.
The sinking fit a pattern of intentionally provocative moves that rattle the U.S. and other nations and focus attention on North Korea that is out of proportion to its size and power. The North has also continued missile development and its nuclear weapons work in defiance of U.S. and international bans.
The pattern spans the tenures of both Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents, none of whom have been able to effectively sideline North Korea or cut a lasting deal to make it less dangerous.
Nonetheless, Romney and other Republicans are using the collapse of the food deal to paint Obama as weak. Romney tied the deal to what he called Obama's cuts in plans for missile defense programs, although the main difference Obama proposes for missile defense would primarily affect Europe, not Asia or the U.S. West Coast.
"This incompetence from the Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and our allies," Romney said in his statement.
The U.N. Security Council deplored North Korea's rocket launch on Friday, saying it violates two council resolutions that had imposed tough sanctions on North Korea after nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
The United States is not likely to seek harsh additional penalties from the Security Council, however, partly in recognition that veto-holding member China is unlikely to agree.
"We're going to consult, we're going to move together in a unified manner," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "And when we do take action, we're going to do so in a deliberate way."