Pyongyang’s family-run government is already cut off economically from almost every country but China. United Nations sanctions have made it more difficult for the North to launder illicit money, import luxury goods and acquire some weapons materials. But U.N. sanctions and bans have not stifled North Korean missile launches, nuclear tests or weapons trades.
Instead, the North does as it pleases, relying on domestic and illegally imported technology, in part because it has little fear about further international condemnation, some security analysts said.
The surprise launch sets back the Obama administration’s goal of engaging North Korea and its new leader in hopes of moderating their behavior and eventually drawing the North back to international denuclearization talks.
North Korea’s leaders have said “they want to have talks, they want to get to normalization,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. “And they continue to take actions that take them further from that.”
She would not comment on whether the United States sees any additional ways to apply pressure on North Korea but said the administration believes that China retains influence over its ally and should use it.
Although the Unha-3 rocket did not carry a warhead, it relied on technology similar to that of a long-range missile. The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Wednesday condemning the launch, calling it a “clear violation” of Security Council resolutions that ban tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the 15-nation council, facing Chinese opposition to sanctions, stopped short of threatening any new penalties against Pyongyang. Instead, the council noted that it threatened in April to take action against North Korea if it launched further tests and vowed to “continue consultations on an appropriate response.”
North Korea says its satellite-launching program is about space research, not weapons technology, and is permissible under an international space treaty.
“The right to use outer space for peaceful purposes is universally recognized by international law,” North Korea’s state-run news agency quoted its Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.
Some U.S. officials call Pyongyang their most vexing diplomatic challenge. Over the past 20 years, various U.S. governments have tried to pressure the North, engage with it, approach it one-on-one and deal with it in groups that include China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.
President Obama’s approach to the North is often described as “strategic patience” — essentially using sanctions while also pushing leader Kim Jong Eun to cease his bad behavior, with the promise of engagement if he does.