Despite Warnings, North Korea Launches Rocket

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DigitalGlobe / AP

This satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows a missile on the launchpad at Musudan-ni, North Korea, formally know as Taepo-dong missle launch facility on March 29, 2009.

This story has been updated.

When it comes to sticking a finger in the rest of the world's eye, Kim Jong Il is always as good as his word. For days, the U.S. and North Korea's neighbors in east Asia kept insisting that Pyongyang stand down from plans to test an intercontinental rocket. But on Sunday morning, North Korea launched it anyway — as it pledged to — saying the rocket bore nothing more than a communications satellite. With six U.S. cruisers equipped with Aegis anti-missile systems deployed in the region — to watch and gather intelligence, not fire on the rocket, Pentagon officials had said late last week — North Korea sent the Taepodong II rocket over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. That, by itself, meant the launch for Pyongyang was a success: two years ago, an earlier version of the same long-range rocket broke up shortly after the launch. "It means they have a long-range rocket that works," says retired U.S. Lt-Gen. Henry Obering. "This has been a long-term effort for them, and they've succeeded. Nothing the outside world has done — not diplomacy or sanctions — has deterred them."

American diplomats and their partners in east Asia privately regarded the launch as a fait accompli. U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, has said that launch or no launch, Washington hoped to push on with talks aimed at getting the North to give up its nuclear weapons program — even hinting that the direct U.S.-North Korean talks Pyongyang has always wanted were possible. (See pictures of the rise of Kim Jong Il.)

The launch complicates that diplomacy. Tokyo in particular is furious at Pyongyang — it had earlier in the week threatened to shoot the missile down — and immediately after the launch asked for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to take place on Sunday. Both Tokyo and the South Korean government believe the rocket launch was an explicit violation of a 2006 U.N. resolution that insisted the North "not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile." But North Korea insists it has the right to place communications satellites into orbit, and the U.S. military on Sunday confirmed that the payload atop the latest rocket was, indeed, a satellite — which failed to leave the Earth's atmosphere, instead plunging into the Pacific. (Read about what North Korea could look like after Kim Jong Il.)

The Security Council announced that it would hold an emergency session on Sunday in New York, and in Prague, one stop of his European tour, Obama said Washington would consult with its allies. But that's about as far as the diplomacy will go. Diplomatic and intelligence sources in Seoul late last week acknowledged that neither China nor Russia — both permanent members of the Security Council — will agree to further sanctions. "The best [Seoul and Tokyo] can hope for is a statement from the Security Council that condemns the test," says Chol Jinwook, director of North Korean Studies at the Korean Institute for National Unification. (See pictures of the New York Philharmonic's performance in Pyongyang.)

Then, from Washington's standpoint, the road becomes tricky. In practical terms, U.S. diplomats say that whether the rocket carried a satellite or not means little: the North has successfully tested a long-range rocket, in defiance of UN resolutions. Though the Taeodong II does not have the range to hit the continental United States, and the North has not yet mastered the technology to miniaturize a nuclear warhead that could fit on the rocket, the launch is, as Obama said, a "provocative act." To be seen as rewarding Pyongyang by engaging in direct talks is, for now, unlikely.

The best Obama can hope for now is to get North Korea to return to the six-party talks (hosted by Beijing and including South Korea, Japan and Russia.) Washington has tried to signal Pyongyang in advance of the launch that it was still interested in talking, "because," says one Western diplomat, "the big picture remains the same, missile or no missile: getting them to abandon their nuclear weapons program."

For North Korea, the successful firing of the Taepodong II likely had two purposes: at a moment when the Obama administration has indicated it is willing to engage with hostile regimes — Iran and Syria specifically — Pyongyang "just threw a big rock at the White House, and said, 'We're here, too,'" says one Western diplomat in Seoul. Internally, the launch comes at a critical moment. Kim Jong Il had a stroke late last summer, and there is intense speculation as to the state of Kim's health and his level of control over his regime. "The launch says to North Koreans that not only is Kim in control, he's flexing his muscles and will soon have the United States and the rest of the world crawling to the bargaining table," says the Seoul diplomat.

As an opening gambit to test a new administration in Washington, Pyongyang is being typically audacious. The North Korean government probably noted with interest that in its immediate reaction, the White House insisted that the North "abandon the development of weapons of mass destruction." It said nothing about destroying the small arsenal of nuclear weapons the North already possesses. Analysts in Seoul wondered whether that was deliberate — a signal that Washington not only still wanted to talk, but that it might be flexible about how the North can stand down its weapons program. Because at some point, new talks, despite the launch, are almost inevitable. The Obama administration is learning the same lesson that its predecessors did: one of the most isolated, impoverished nations on the planet somehow always seems to come up with ways to put world's hyperpower on the defensive, with little choice but to engage with North Korea.

See pictures of the border between North and South Korea.

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