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.
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.
Noting that the launch presents "the first foreign-policy test of President Obama's rhetoric," Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington says that UN credibility will depend on enforcement of existing resolutions and passage of "stronger punitive measures."
Obama underscored his long-term goal of eliminating nuclear weapons in a speech Sunday in a historic square in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. He called for eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons – which he labeled "the most dangerous legacy of the cold war" – and committed to hosting a summit within a year to focus on reducing and then eliminating nuclear weapons.
The president took specific note of both North Korea and Iran, saying Iran has "a clear choice": either become a contributing member of the international community by abandoning its uranium-enrichment program or continue down the road of international isolation.
Of North Korea, Obama said, "[it] must know that the path to security and respect will never come through threats and illegal weapons."
Iran is expected to pay as much attention to how North Korea fares in its standoff with the US and other international powers as it does to warnings from the Obama administration. Pyongyang has cited a spat with the US over verification of dismantling its nuclear facilities in refusing to return to six-party talks. Iran is in its own standoff with the international community over its refusal to abandon a program that could lead to development of a nuclear weapon.
The Bush administration relied on the six-party talks to arrive at an accord with Pyongyang last year, in which North Korea would dismantle its nuclear weapons and facilities in exchange for economic aid and a path to diplomatic normalization.
Like North Korea, Iran is subject to various UN resolutions and sanctions over its nuclear pursuits and its defiance of the international community. And like Pyongyang, Tehran is thought to be hoping to use its nuclear program – and the destabilizing threat it poses to a strategically crucial region – to extract some kind of "grand security bargain" from the US.
Still, the consensus among analysts is that Pyongyang is pursuing missile development for reasons of both prestige and economic survival. Sunday's rocket launch came just ahead of this week's opening of North Korea's parliamentary session. The parliament is nothing more than a rubber stamp of the Kim regime, but nonetheless the missile launch will allow Kim to dampen doubts about his power and health.
At the same time, the launch, despite its contested success, allows the North to demonstrate some progress to its international clients. Missile sales to Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen have been among the few income-earners for the impoverished country in recent years.
Both Pyongyang and Tehran may have benefited from even a failed launch, says RAND's Hahm, noting the particularly close relationship North Korea maintains with Iran in the area of missile development.
"They say you learn as much from failure as you do from your successes," he says. "So this still may have been beneficial to both of them."