Does it ramp up the pressure with new and tougher sanctions? Does it not overreact and essentially stand pat? Or will it, like the Bush administration after North Korea's first test in 2006, shift course and redouble efforts at engagement and diplomacy?
Top officials in the Obama administration have only begun to grapple with those questions and have not reached any conclusions beyond seeking condemnation by the U.N. Security Council with "consequences," officials said. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hit the phones urging a "strong, unified" approach from other nations while President Obama said the North was "deepening its own isolation and inviting stronger international pressure." He vowed to "work with our friends and our allies to stand up to this behavior."
The answers are complicated by the fact that the notoriously unpredictable government in Pyongyang appears to be in flux, with leader Kim Jong Il ailing from a stroke and no clear successor in place.
In any case, North Korea once again has forced its way to the top of the foreign policy agenda of a White House that largely had been focused on reaching out to Iran and dealing with the crisis in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While North Korea is an isolated, xenophobic nation, accepting it as a nuclear power is unthinkable for many in the region and could spur U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea to go nuclear.
"The Obama team came in thinking the problem is a lack of engagement," said Michael Green, who dealt with the North Korea issue as a top White House aide in the Bush administration. "They now realize that it is a lack of pressure. They are determined to reteach North Korea good manners."
Obama inherited a sputtering multilateral diplomatic process on North Korea from the Bush administration, and initially U.S. officials suggested they would jump-start the talks with the offer of direct, high-level bilateral discussions. Still there were suspicions in Asia and Washington that the president intended to only manage concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons, not resolve them, when he appointed a part-time special envoy to handle the talks. Senior officials during the transition concluded there were few good options for dealing with the North, but that downshifting of priorities could also have irritated Pyongyang.
Within weeks, North Korea spurned the administration's offer of direct talks and in April tested a long-range rocket. When the United States led an effort at the U.N. Security Council condemning the rocket test, North Korea angrily responded by suggesting it soon would test a nuclear weapon in order to strengthen its "deterrent."
The administration response to the North's rhetoric has been inconsistent, perhaps in part because the Senate, leaving a key policy-making role for North Korea unfilled, still has not confirmed Obama's nominee for assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Kurt Campbell.
Democrats had long criticized Bush for not engaging more with North Korea and applauded his change of heart. Indeed, during the presidential campaign Obama supported removing North Korea from the terrorism list while his Republican rival John McCain was critical. Bush made the concession after vague assurances from Pyongyang that it would agree to a verification plan; North Korea later denied it had made any such agreement. John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador who has long advocated a tough approach to the North, faulted the Obama administration for expecting that the six-nation talks could be revived after North Korea reneged on the deal with Bush.
But David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said the response should not be new sanctions but instead better diplomacy. He said he found the administration's response to North Korea's provocations over the past few months "very frustrating," with one senior official even privately joking to him that perhaps North Korea would use up its stash of plutonium through repeated testing. "This has required a high-level effort rather than just management of a problem," Albright said.
Victor Cha, the deputy negotiator to the six-party talks in the Bush administration, said Bush had trouble winning broad support for sanctions because many around the world blamed his administration for the crisis in the first place and suspected he secretly was trying to topple the government.
"No one in the world blames this on Obama," Cha said. "They carry none of the baggage of the Bush administration, and that could work to the United States's advantage. I think North Korea underestimates that."
Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.