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North Korea missile: punishment up to US

Security Council's struggle to respond to Sunday's rocket launch also portends challenges for Obama's nonproliferation goals with Iran.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 2009

American Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice (c.) and Japanese Ambassador to the United Nations Yukio Takasu spoke to reporters regarding North Korea's launch of a test missile Sunday, April 5, 2009 at U.N. headquarters.

Mary Altaffer/AP



The UN Security Council's inability to take harsh action against North Korea in an emergency session Sunday – the first such gathering of the Obama presidency – leaves the challenge posed by Pyongyang's launch of a long-range missile in Washington's lap.

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That is just where North Korea's attention-starved leader, Kim Jong Il, wants it.

"North Korea was way down on the list of priorities for Obama, but with this one test firing, they have put themselves at the top of his list of things to do," says Chaibong Hahm, a Northeast Asia expert at RAND Corp., in Santa Monica, Calif.

By launching the long-range Taepodong-2 rocket despite warnings from world leaders such as President Obama, Pyongyang is daring the international community and, in particular, Washington to ignore its progress in missiles and weapons delivery at their peril.

Pyongyang claimed the launch boosted a communications satellite into orbit, but US and other officials countered that the test launch was mostly a fizzle. They said the rocket, while demonstrating some progress over a failed launch in 2006, did not attain orbiting altitude before crashing into the Pacific Ocean.

It was no coincidence, some analysts say, that North Korea fired its missile and grabbed headlines around the world as Mr. Obama was in the spotlight on his first overseas trip as president.

But the Security Council could not immediately agree on a response to the rocket launch. China urged restraint, warning against any move that could increase tensions or destabilize the rogue nation, even as America's ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, insisted that North Korea's action "merits a clear and strong response." Security Council consultations will continue over "the coming days," she said late Sunday, with an aim of producing a unified approach.

The council's lack of action points to the two-fold difficulties Obama faces in keeping North Korea from backsliding on its commitment to give up its nuclear weapons and materials and, too, in pursuing his broader goal of curtailing global nuclear proliferation.

"This puts Obama in a pretty tough situation," says Mr. Hahm. "He has said the words of the world's leaders have to mean something, so he will want to see something pretty strong come out of the Security Council."

"On the other hand, he has said he is ready to negotiate, so how does he do that without looking to allies like Japan and South Korea [like] he is siding with China and rewarding North Korea for its bad behavior?" Hahm adds.