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Obama said N. Korea 'broke the rules.' Now what?

N. Korea's missile launch Sunday complicates the long-term strategy of the US and her Asian allies toward Pyongyang's nuclear program.

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The US and South Korea disputed North Korea's claim, saying the effort to put a satellite into space had failed. The first stage of the Taepodong-2 missile fell into the East Sea (also known as the Sea of Japan), and "the remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean," said the North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command. "No object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan."

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Did the rocket violate a UN resolution?

Nevertheless, Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul insist the launch violates a resolution passed in July 2006, in the wake of a surprise medium-range missile test, banning Pyongyang from any ballistic activity. Missiles carrying warheads and rockets carrying satellites are essentially identical.

North Korea argues that its membership of a UN treaty on the peaceful uses of outer space give it the right to launch satellites, which it says was the missile's purpose. Beijing is sympathetic to that view.

"The launch violates the UN resolution but it is different from nuclear and missile tests," says Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. "It is less sinister" than the unannounced missile test in 2006, he adds.

Japanese cabinet spokesman Takeo Kawamura did not agree. "Even if a satellite was launched, we see this as a ballistic missile test and we think this matter should be taken to the United Nations Security Council," he said on Sunday.

Sanctions unlikely to help

Toughened sanctions would almost undoubtedly prompt an angry response from Pyongyang and make an early resumption of six-party talks impossible, points out David Kang, head of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.

"The US does not want to appear to go easy on North Korea, but it does not want to fall into the trap of effectively ending denuclearization negotiations, says Prof. Kang.

Nor are many diplomatic observers under the illusion that sanctions would make any difference. "Even if Pyongyang is punished by the UN Security Council, I don't believe that would change North Korea's attitude," predicts Akikazu Hashimoto, a professor of politics at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo.

Impact on six-party talks

That, argues Paik Hak Soon, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, a Seoul think tank, means that there is "no other way but to return to the six-party talks for the nuclear issue."