WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Tuesday castigated North Korea for its latest nuclear test, warning the Stalinist regime that pursuit of an atomic arsenal would bring neither security nor prosperity.
"Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them," Obama said during his State of the Union speech. He said the United States will continue to "stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."
The North's third nuclear test in less than a decade had been widely anticipated for months. The detonation Tuesday of an underground nuclear device at the Punggye-ri test site on the eve of Obama's annual address to both chambers of Congress and shortly before the inauguration of South Korea's new president was likely timed to draw as much international attention as possible.
Washington and partner governments are expected to push for strong new U.N. Security Council penalties against North Korea. It is not known yet whether council veto-holder China will accept a new sanctions resolution against its longtime ally. The 15-state body on Tuesday condemned the nuclear test but could require weeks to take more aggressive action.
The president touched on the ongoing Western-led effort to convince the Iranian government to curb sensitive atomic activities and to allow greater oversight of its nuclear program, which many fear is aimed at developing a weapons capability. Tehran insists its nuclear program has no military component.
"The leaders of Iran must recognize that now's the time for a diplomatic solution because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon," Obama said.
He pledged to "engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals." While Obama is said to be preparing to move forward with a plan that could allow for further significant cuts to the U.S. atomic stockpile, details had not been expected at the speech.
"America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons," the president promised. The United States will "continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands."
Obama touted his administration's efforts to eliminate the core leadership of al-Qaida -- "Today the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self" -- even as he acknowledged that new al-Qaida franchises are flexing their muscles in deadly regional terrorist attacks in the Middle East and North Africa. "The threat these groups pose is evolving," he said.
In pursuing the al-Qaida threat, the United States will "need to help countries like Yemen, Libya and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans," he said.
Even as Washington contemplates drastically cutting back defense spending under the threat of sequestration, Obama said the United States would not neglect its military alliances abroad. "We'll remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa, from Europe to Asia."