North Korea presents Obama with leadership test

PRAGUE Sun Apr 5, 2009 2:18pm EDT

President Barack Obama gestures during his meeting with European Commission President Josz Manuel Barroso at the E.U. Summit in Prague April 5, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

President Barack Obama gestures during his meeting with European Commission President Josz Manuel Barroso at the E.U. Summit in Prague April 5, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

PRAGUE (Reuters) - North Korea's missile launch presented U.S. President Barack Obama with a leadership test on Sunday during a European tour where he hoped to focus on the economy, Afghanistan and nuclear non-proliferation.

Obama, who took office in January, has tried to emphasize a consultative approach to foreign policy during an eight day-trip that began with an economic summit in London and included an open-air speech in Prague where he called for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Even before Obama delivered the Prague speech, which was to have been one of the focal points of the trip, it was overshadowed by the North Korean rocket launch.

Obama said Pyongyang's move was intended as a threat to countries "near and far."

"This action demands a response from the international community," he told reporters.

Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, faced a similar early test three months into his presidency in 2001 when a Chinese military plane collided with a U.S. electronic surveillance plane off a Hainan island.

A Chinese pilot was killed, and the U.S. plane made an emergency landing on the island. The crew was released 10 days later, and the plane was also later returned.

U.S. officials confirmed the launch just hours before Obama was to tell a crowd of thousands in the Czech Republic that the United States was ready to take steps on non-proliferation.

Aides said his call for the scrapping of all atomic weapons would lend credibility to Obama's efforts to resolve the nuclear disputes with North Korea and Iran.

The speech in a cobbled square in Prague was meant to be an uplifting event.

A crowd, which the White House said numbered more than 20,000, cheered when Obama and his wife Michelle took the stage. Music by the Irish rock band U2 blared from speakers.

In a scene reminiscent of his presidential campaign, the event was displayed on a giant video screen.

The theme of non-proliferation was likely to resonate with audiences in Europe, where there is strong anti-war feeling.


Earlier in his trip, Obama attended a NATO summit on the border of France and Germany where he tried to persuade reluctant Europeans to contribute more to the Afghanistan war effort.

At the NATO summit and at an earlier meeting in London of the Group of 20 developed and emerging economies, Obama tried to emphasize a break with Bush, who was unpopular in Europe and was criticized for a "go-it-alone" approach to foreign affairs.

Obama's rise to prominence in the United States was partly based on an image he cultivated as someone able to bridge political and social divides.

At the G20 summit, Obama spoke of the importance of reaching a consensus after the leaders argued over how to approach fiscal stimulus and revamping financial regulation.

At the NATO meeting, there was acrimony when Turkey objected to a push by several European countries to have Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen appointed as the alliance's next leader.

Obama aides pointed out his role in brokering a meeting between Rasmussen and Turkish President Abdullah Gul. Turkey was persuaded to drop its objections and NATO members unanimously approved Rasmussen as secretary-general.

The next day, U.S. officials confirmed North Korea had launched a rocket. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he woke Obama at his Prague hotel to give him the news.

Obama will put his skills as a consensus builder to the test again as he seeks to win support in the United Nations Security Council for a response to North Korea. The council was scheduled to meet later Sunday to consider Pyongyang's action.

(Reporting by Caren Bohan and Matt Spetalnick; editing by Andrew Dobbie)