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U.N. condemns North Korean rocket launch, stops short of penalties

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North Korea’s failed rocket launch drew a carefully calibrated response from the United States and other countries on Friday, with officials seeking to condemn the North without inviting even more provocations from the reclusive government.

Twice in the past six years, North Korea has set off nuclear tests after failed rocket launches sparked international outcry and, later, economic sanctions. On Friday, at an emergency meeting, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement that censured North Korea’s launch — widely perceived as a thinly veiled ballistic missile test — but stopped well short of imposing any new penalties on Pyongyang.

“The Security Council deplored this launch,” said U.S. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, who is presiding over the 15-nation council’s rotating presidency this month. “Members of the Security Council agree to continue consultations on an appropriate response.”

The North is already one of the most heavily sanctioned nations in the world, and any attempt to impose further sanctions through the Security Council would likely have been blocked by China, North Korea’s staunchest ally.

White House officials, meanwhile, said they won’t pursue new sanctions but will seek to tighten the enforcement of existing U.N. sanctions. They also said they had suspended a deal to deliver food aid to North Korea in return for a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.

“Their efforts to launch a missile clearly demonstrate that they could not be trusted to keep their commitments, therefore we’re not going forward with an agreement to provide them with any assistance,” National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes told reporters accompanying President Obama on a flight to Florida aboard Air Force One.

The administration’s negotiation with North Korea was part of an engagement strategy that Obama has advocated since his inauguration. But any prospect of further engagement will probably be put on hold, at least until after the election.

As a political issue, North Korea has gained traction in recent weeks as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and some Korea experts have criticized the Obama administration’s Feb. 29 deal with Pyongyang, which unraveled in two weeks.

“They reached out and everyone saw how that agreement was broken,” said Evans Revere, a former State Department official who specializes in Asia. “The administration can’t be seen as rushing back to the table.”

Instead, U.S. officials have extensively discussed in private the possibility of increasing military exercises and consultations with allies in the region, including Japan and South Korea. Such exercises, however, have typically incensed North Korea and could provoke the country to launch exercises of its own.

China, the North’s main economic benefactor and a conduit through which the North receives much of its food and its luxury goods, will be the key in any scenario to the international response. As the United States pushes for tighter enforcement of existing sanctions, for example, it will need cooperation from Beijing.

China had worked hard behind the scenes to put together the Feb. 29 agreement, and some analysts have been told by Chinese diplomats that they tried to dissuade North Korea before it announced its planned rocket launch.

Officials have said the Chinese appear genuinely angry that North Korea went ahead with those plans. But such anger may not translate into action.

“We hope all relevant parties can maintain calm and restraint, and refrain from acts that would harm peace and stability on the Peninsula and in the region,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, said Friday in a statement quoted in the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Looming over any diplomatic response is the possibility of North Korea’s third nuclear test.

Even before the latest rocket launch, the South Korean government had warned that the North might be preparing for such a test, citing satellite images of accumulating mounds of dirt at a location used for underground tests in 2006 and 2009. U.S. intelligence analysts have said they are also studying the location intently.

“The dirt pile is clearly visible,” said Paul Brannan, a nonproliferation analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, who has obtained and studied the same satellite image used by the South Koreans. “And it follows the North’s previous patterns of missile test then nuclear test. So it does seem likely.”

The difference this time is that North Korea may use highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium. A successful test would indicate a proficient uranium program, which is much easier to produce undetected.

Much of the information about North Korea’s Friday morning launch remains unknown, or relegated to classified military readouts. According to news reports, South Korean destroyers and U.S. Navy ships are looking to scour the sea for debris that could be used to improve intelligence on North Korea’s capabilities.

Still, experts are already trying to piece together the little that is publicly known — the rocket’s failure after a minute and a half, the sighting of debris from the first stage 165 kilometers, or about 100 miles, west of Seoul — to learn more about North Korea’s program.

“The problem doesn’t appear to be a matter of design because we saw how far along they got in 2009,” said Ted Postol, a physicist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s likely a matter of consistency and reliability of their manufacturing.”

Postol added: “It just goes to show you how much of a challenge it is to build a very large, light, near-perfect performing structure.”

Lynch reported from the United Nations. Correspondent Chico Harlan in Seoul contributed to this report.

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