The White House denied Friday that North Korea's rocket launch showed that President Barack Obama's efforts to engage the isolated country's secretive Stalinist regime had been a failure.
"Absolutely not," Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters aboard Air Force One as Obama headed from Washington to Florida, on his way to a summit in Colombia.
Mitt Romney said Thursday that the rocket launch, which Washington said was actually an attempt to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, reflected Obama's "incompetence" in dealing with the North Korean regime. Romney accused the president of having "emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and our allies."
"First of all, what this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past," Rhodes countered, arguing that President George W. Bush had provided "a substantial amount of assistance" to the Hermit Kingdom and noting that Bush had removed Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
"Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," Rhodes said, adding that the Obama administration had imposed "unprecedented sanctions" on the isolated regime and made clear to that it would lose planned food aid if it went ahead with the launch. White House officials said late Thursday that the food aid was now on hold.
"We have not provided them with any assistance, and it's impossible to see how we can move forward with the February agreement given the action that they've taken," Rhodes said.
Rhodes said the United States will now press the United Nations Security Council for "a universal message of condemnation from the international community" over the launch, which failed when the rocket broke up and fell back to earth shortly after lift-off.
"They have to understand that they will only deepen their isolation by going down this road," he added.
Amid concerns that North Korea may be looking to conduct a nuclear test, Rhodes warned that "if they continue to take additional provocative actions, we, of course, have to continue to look at ways in which we could tighten sanctions on the North Koreans and take additional steps to apply pressure on the regime."
Asked whether scrapping food aid amounted to punishing the starvation-hit North Korean people for the actions of their government, Rhodes said, "It's the North Korean government that is holding its own people hostage because, frankly, we can't trust them to implement an agreement and to make sure that the assistance gets to those who need it."
He went on to say, "They have an economy that is desperately in need of integration with the world and that they have people, again, who would be far better off if the government spent their resources on investing in North Korean citizenry and not on these types of technologies."
Update, 5:28 p.m. ET: This post was changed to clarify that Rhodes spoke while Air Force One was en route from Washington to Florida.
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