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North Korea's challenge for Obama

The US must pressure China to rein in its ally.

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North Korea spent about $30 million to launch a rocket across the Pacific April 4 – but it still needs foreign aid to prevent a mass famine.

In 2006, it tested an atomic weapon – but its people still must scrounge for coal each winter to keep warm.

It regularly puts on massive public performances in stadiums – but thousands of hungry or desperate North Koreans flee to China each year.

Can such a regime survive for long?

China hopes so, and in fact still provides food and fuel to prop up the iron-fisted (and ham-handed) rule of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Beijing does not want to see a unified Korea – with the possibility of US troops on its border. Only once, in 2006, did China cut off aid – briefly – in protest over North Korea's weapon advances that upset stability in Asia.

South Korea, too, remains wary of the North Korean regime collapsing soon. Since the mid-1990s, when it estimated the cost of absorbing the North's 23 million poor to be too high for its own economy, Seoul has zig-zagged between acting tough and boosting the North's economy, mainly with food aid.

Because of these stances by China and South Korea, the Obama administration has difficult choices in how to respond to North Korea's latest provocation, especially now that North Korea is within reach of being able to launch an atomic weapon toward US territory. The US must cater to the interests of South Korea, which is an official ally and the main target of North Korea's military. And it must rely on China, which the US wants to treat as an ally and which, as North Korea's only ally, keeps the door open for US talks with Mr. Kim.

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