North Korea's successful rocket launch Sunday - despite the failure to orbit a satellite – boosts the rogue state's chances of one day building a nuclear-tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. But it leaves the US and her Asian allies in a quandary over their long-term strategy toward Pyongyang.
South Korea ’s YTN network said that North Korea had demonstrated itsability to fire a missile 2,000 miles – a significant step towardrealizing the capability of delivering a warhead as far as Alaska ,Hawaii or the west coast of the US.
Japan called an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting for Sunday afternoon, threatening new sanctions against Pyongyang. President Barack Obama, in Prague for a summit on nuclear proliferation, singled out Pyongyang in a speech about the urgent need for a ban against nuclear weapons testing.
"North Korea broke the rules once more by testing a rocket that could be used for a long-range missile," Obama said. "This provocation underscores the need for action — not just this afternoon at the UN Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons."
Beijing, meanwhile, signaled its opposition to any new sanctions against its ally. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said China "urge[d] all sides to maintain calm and exercise restraint," and remained ready to "play a constructive role."
The future of six-nation talks to strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons capability in return for international acceptance, however, seemed to have been cast into even deeper doubt by the launch.
US disputes N. Korea's claim
The United Nations Security Council debate is likely to involve "a lot of political polemics" over whether the rocket, which North Korea claimed put a satellite into orbit, violated an earlier Council resolution, says Daniel Pinkston, head of the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group think tank.
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."
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
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.
"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.
"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.