Despite tough talk from US President Barack Obama, the US and its allies have limited options if North Korea goes ahead with its planned long-range rocket launch in the middle of this month.
Washington is likely to take the matter to the UN Security Council, analysts say, and could tighten its already tough sanctions. Such efforts would struggle without support from China, which can be expected to resist any moves that might threaten the stability of its neighbor.
There also is deep uncertainty about where turning the screw further on North Korea would lead. After the UN Security Council condemned its previous long-range rocket launch in 2009, North Korea responded by kicking out nuclear inspectors, pulling out of aid-for-disarmament negotiations and conducting its second detonation of an atomic device.
“At minimum, there has to be a statement of criticism” at the UN Security Council, said Gordon Flake, a Washington-based North Korea analyst. “The question is how North Korea will react, and history suggests it won’t react well.”
The stakes are higher than they were in 2009 as the potential for tensions on the Korean Peninsula to escalate into conflict are greater now than they were then.
The South Korean government came under heavy domestic criticism for what was seen as a weak response to a North Korean artillery barrage that killed four people on a front-line island in 2010. Earlier that year, North Korea was believed to have torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. The North denied responsibility.
North Korea says the missile launch is intended to place an observation satellite into orbit, but the US and others view the launch as a cover for a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that one day could carry a nuclear warhead.
Crucially for Washington, if the three-stage Unha-3 rocket works, it could demonstrate that North Korea has parts of the US in its missile range.
The launch would violate both a UN ban and an accord the impoverished country reached with Washington on Feb. 29, under which it would freeze nuclear activities and observe a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests in exchange for 240,000 tonnes of food aid.
The launch plans, disclosed a little more than two weeks after the accord was announced, undermined what little faith Washington and Seoul had in North Korea’s sincerity about talks on its nuclear program. It also all but squashed the fleeting prospect that the nation would change after the death in December last year of longtime ruler Kim Jong-il.
Obama, facing re-election and accused by opposition Republicans of being naive for reaching out to North Korea, pointedly visited the heavily militarized Korean border last week during a trip to South Korea for a nuclear summit. North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, had previously made the visit from the northern side.
Obama implored the North’s leaders “to have the courage to pursue peace,” but warned that unless they changed their ways, the country would face “more isolation,” but neither he nor other administration officials have said what steps the US would take should North Korea launch the missile.
The US and its allies, including Japan and South Korea, could seek to clamp down further on the North’s illicit weapons trade, and impose additional financial and banking restrictions that have hurt North Korea in the past.