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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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Some observers are optimistic that once the initial international outrage has died down, the launch of the N. Korean rocket might actually spark new impetus for talks.

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"Sooner or later the US will suggest direct dialogue. North Korea may be waiting for the US suggestion," suggests Kim Tae Woo, vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, since Pyongyang's fundamental goal is a relationship with the US.

The launch "will make the talks happen earlier," agrees Choi Jin Wook, an analyst at the Korean Institute of National Unification. "The US will be considering incentives rather than penalties," he believes.

Other analysts say Pyongyang has poked the US too hard in the eye for that, considering that President Obama last week directly warned North Korea not to launch its rocket.

"This will greatly delay any rapprochement between North Korea and the Obama administration," argues Professor Shi, who attributes the launch to domestic political concerns in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Il, reported to have suffered a stroke in August, may still be able to preside over the opening session Thursday of North Korea's rubberstamp Supreme People's Assembly. Kim Tae Woo believes Kim Jong Il's "health is good enough to control the government." Thus the launch is seen as a moment of triumph that will strengthen his grip on the country while he considers a successor, probably one of his three sons.

'Almost no downside' for N. Korea

China, too, had warned North Korea against launching its rocket, but without effect. That makes Beijing cautious about supporting UN sanctions this time, in contrast with its attitude in 2006, says Shi.

"We are not going to do too much this time about things we cannot affect, so that we can reserve at least minimal influence over North Korea in the future if we get a chance to use it," he explains.

In the meantime, "there is almost downside for North Korea" in launching its rocket, says Professor Kang, "and they have put other countries in a really difficult situation."

The launch, he argues, leaves North Korea "tactically stronger, because they got away with what they wanted. But in the long-term we are still where we always were; North Korea wants strategic relations with the United States and the US won't offer that until they give up their nukes."

Takehiko Kambayashi in Tokyo contributed.

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