North Korea's decision to launch a rocket early Friday drew swift and widespread condemnation by the international community. The White House suspended a shipment of 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea, and the U.N. Security Council, which quickly met, called the launch deplorable and said it violated two council resolutions.
Though the rocket's failure shortly after launch may have revealed serious technical flaws, the fact that the launch took place at all underlined the international community's inability to prevent the country's authoritarian regime from carrying out such acts. And there are now concerns that North Korea could follow up the failed rocket launch with an underground nuclear test.
The American ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, would not say whether the U.N. was considering more sanctions.
"I think it's premature, both in my national capacity and as president of the Security Council, to predict or characterize the form of reaction," Rice said. "We think a credible reaction is important."
Douglas Paal, an Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the problem with determining how to react to the rocket launch may have a lot to do with uncertainty about what to expect next from North Korea.
"Since in 2006 and 2009 they did both missile and nuclear tests, there's an expectation the same pattern will hold this time," Paal says. "Therefore people should save their reactions and keep them just rhetorical in the near term, and then save real sanction resolutions for the possible nuclear test later on."
Still, Paal says, there are already heavy sanctions against North Korea, which hasn't done much to stop its provocative behavior. The other problem is uncertainty about North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his father in December.
Robert Gallucci, the chief American negotiator with North Korea during the Clinton administration, says the younger Kim is still burnishing his credentials.
"The only thing that seems clear is that the new young leader might still need or want to prove himself to be a tough and strong person in the face of challenges domestic and external," Gallucci says.
Analysts say the failed rocket launch could be seen as a huge embarrassment for Kim, which may push him faster into authorizing an underground nuclear test. Gallucci says all this has been a bad hit for U.S. efforts to get North Korea to the negotiating table, but he says there's not much the U.S. can do right now.
"At this point, there probably needs to be a slight period of non-engagement," he says, "and then I think the clear message to the North is we are still interested in engagement."
But Michael Green, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University, says the failed rocket launch showed that diplomatic engagement with North Korea is not working.
"We ought to take it as a sign that the North is intent on ignoring our diplomatic efforts and moving towards that nuclear weapons capability. And we ought to look at it as an opportunity and really a necessity that we lay down some very strong markers in the wake of this missile test, even though it failed," Green says.
Green says that means putting some pressure on China to do more to rein in North Korea, its ally. "And I think the key is to make it clear that their relative complacency towards North Korea leaves us no choice but to strengthen our own defense capability and defense cooperation with allies," he says.
The Carnegie Endowment's Paal says the U.S. may need to preserve some of its political capital with China to help get its backing for sanctions against Syria and Iran. This is a period of lousy choices, he says.
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