WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama Tuesday condemned North Korea's deadly attack on South Korea, pledged to protect "one of our most important allies" and urged China to take a more punitive stance toward Kim Jong Il's regime than it has in the past.
Obama didn't address what actions the U.S. might take against North Korea for firing artillery shells on the island of Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean marines and injuring others.
"We strongly condemn the attack and we are rallying the international community to put pressure on North Korea," Obama said Tuesday in an interview with Barbara Walters that will air Friday on ABC. "We want to make sure all the parties in the region recognize that this is a serious and ongoing threat that needs to be dealt with."
Obama, visiting a Chrysler plant Tuesday in Kokomo, Ind., where he talked about the comeback of the U.S. auto industry, declined to speak publicly about the attack before holding a telephone call later Tuesday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Obama learned of the provocation early Tuesday when he was awakened by a call from his National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon, at 3:55 a.m.
As Obama returned to Washington, Donilon convened a meeting of top civilian and military advisers to recommend next steps to the president. Participants included Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the president's and vice president's top national security advisers, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and others.
In a rare display of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats in Congress joined Obama in condemning North Korea's actions.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said South Koreans "should not have any question that the people and forces of the United States stand ready as a devoted ally committed to the defense of their nation." Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said China has "perhaps the most influence" on the regime and urged the Asian giant to "play a more direct and responsible role in changing North Korea's reckless behavior."
However, some Republicans, including House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, also used the opportunity to push Obama to increase spending on U.S. missile defense.
It wasn't immediately clear whether North Korea's attack would affect Obama's prospects for getting reluctant Republicans to vote with Democrats to pass the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia before year's end.
This was North Korea's third major provocative action this year, following a torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 and its announcement earlier this month that it has secretly built a plant to enrich uranium.
The attack also comes as North Korea's ailing leader transfers power to his son, Kim Jong Un.
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense policy expert with the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center, called North Korea's attack "fundamentally an illegitimate act" that shouldn't be downplayed. With this, atop the uranium enrichment claims, "I think we are getting into the crisis zone," he said. "The North Koreans feel they can be in the drivers' seat too much. They provoke a crisis and manage to essentially divide other countries in the region."
O'Hanlon said he's not as concerned about diplomatic questions such as participation in the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear weapons program as he is in getting China to take a more unified stand with the U.S. on an approach, along with South Korea, Russia and Japan.
"We all should be trying to sing from the same sheet of music," he said.
Ultimately, O'Hanlon said, Obama must lay out a "clear choice" for North Korea, demonstrating negative economic consequences if it continues on a path of aggression and nuclear development, and where it sees benefits if it changes.
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow in Asia Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center, said that North Korea wants to pressure the U.S. into dropping sanctions and preconditions for returning to the six-party talks, and to push the international community to stop enforcing U.N. sanctions against it.
This latest attack shows the regime is "willing to go further up the escalatory ladder than it has before," Klingner said. He urged the Obama administration to leave no doubt that the United States will defend South Korea if necessary and to "strongly signal that Washington will not acquiesce to this kind of behavior."
At the State Department, acting spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. will take a "measured and unified" approach pending consultations with South Korea, China, Japan and Russia — the other members, besides North Korea, of the shelved six-party talks.
At the Pentagon, Col. David Lapan said the U.S. is "still monitoring the situation and talking with our allies" and that "it's too soon now to tell what actions may be taken as a result of this."
There were no immediate plans to send more U.S. troops to South Korea in addition to the 25,000 troops already stationed there.
(David Lightman, Steven Thomma and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)
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