After Launch, U.S. Stance Veers Between Tough and Dismissive

By Walter Pincus and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

U.S. officials have sent mixed messages in the wake of North Korea's missile launch Sunday.

In Washington and at the United Nations in New York, officials said publicly that North Korea had to face consequences for the rocket launch, which military and intelligence sources said failed to place a satellite in space. But other officials privately dismissed suggestions that the launch posed a major test for the Obama administration.

Marine Corp Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former head of U.S. Strategic Command, said yesterday that the Pyongyang regime's launch failed on two counts: proving that North Korea could build an intercontinental ballistic missile and proving that the nation had a product it could sell to other countries.

With the second and third booster stages of its Taepodong-2 rocket and the payload falling into the Pacific Ocean, Cartwright said, North Korea failed to "transition from one stage of boost to the next." Referring to two earlier launches of the rocket that were said to be unsuccessful, he said, "On the idea of proliferation, would you buy from somebody that had failed three times in a row and never been successful?"

Nevertheless, State Department Spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters that the United States was seeking a "strong, coordinated and effective response to the North Korean missile launch" from the U.N. Security Council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that North Korea's launch has "grave implications" and that "coming out with a strong position in the United Nations is the first and important step" for the United States.

During an appearance on CBS News, Susan E. Rice, ambassador to the United Nations, said the missile launch "was in violation of international law." But even though she said other nations recognized it was a matter of "grave concern," it probably would take several days before a response would be offered.

Rice also said the launch was a setback for North Korea. "From the information we have available to us at this point, we see no evidence that they launched a satellite into orbit, as they've claimed. And so we have to assume that this was a setback for what the North Koreans were trying to achieve," she said.

North Korea's launch and the possible U.N. response would not necessarily disrupt efforts to revive the six-country talks involving North Korea, its neighbors and the United States, a senior administration official said yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on the subject.

The U.N. resolution that Sunday's launch is said to have violated was passed by the Security Council on Oct. 14, 2006, in the wake of North Korea's secret test of a nuclear device. The resolution "demanded" that Pyongyang not "launch . . . a ballistic missile . . . [and] suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme . . . in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner."

The 2006 resolution also called on North Korea to return to the six-party talks on its nuclear program. The government of Kim Jong Il returned to the talks two weeks later. In February 2007, those talks resulted in a deal under which Pyongyang agreed to take the first steps toward nuclear disarmament by promising to shut down its main nuclear reactor in return for fuel aid.

Yesterday, Rice seemed to be hoping for a similar turn of events. "Whether through the Security Council or through other means," she said, "we think it's important to send a strong message to North Korea that it can't act with impunity and that, indeed, it needs to come back to the table, and we need to push forward in our shared efforts to achieve a Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons."

The tough verbal responses to North Korea's failed effort seemed to contrast with the relatively mild reaction in Washington and elsewhere to Iran's successful placement of a satellite in orbit Feb. 3, just weeks after the Obama administration took office. At that time, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the Iranian launch "does not convince us that Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the region." He added that the Obama administration "will use all elements of our national power to deal with Iran and to help it be a responsible member of the international community," but no U.N. action was sought.

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