As U.S. leaders grapple today with how to respond to North Korea’s failed rocket launch, they’ll have a vast array of calculations to consider. There are the strategic factors, the diplomatic factors (including how hard they can push China to pressure North Korea) and, in an election year, the political factors.
The Obama administration faces fairly limited options for how to respond. North Korea is already one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world. Even so, U.S. officials say they will seek some sign of condemnation from the United Nations.
A Security Council resolution, however, could be hard to obtain in the face of a possible veto from Russia and especially from China, which has been North Korea’s staunchest defender in the international arena.
More likely, the Security Council is likely to approve a presidential statement, which is easier to pass but traditionally carries less legal force than a resolution. Given the failure of the launch, a presidential statement may be perceived politically within the United States as a strong enough response.
U.S. officials have also discussed the possibility of increasing military exercises and consultations with allies in the region, including Japan and South Korea. Such exercises have typically incensed North Korea and could provoke the country to launch retaliatory exercises of its own.
China may try to dissuade the North Koreans from further provocations, given the Chinese interest in preventing the staging of U.S.-backed military drills so close to its shores.
Here is some early reaction from U.S. officials and analysts.
THE VIEW FROM THE WHITE HOUSE
“It’s worth noting, given the failure, the unprecedented sanctions we have in place that have greatly restricted North Korean’s proliferation activities and prevented them from getting key materials that they need,” said an Obama administration official, who was not authorized to speak on record.
The official also noted the rippling effect of the rocket’s failure.
“Part of this effort was propaganda, and on that front it was extremely unsuccessful. The other part was to show off their wares for other countries that want to purchase, and on that front it was also wildly unsuccessful. You’re not going to purchase missiles from country that has failed to launch three straight times.”
THE STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS
“The fact that it failed suggests there’s a little more time before North Korea has the capability to strike the U.S. directly, but at the same time, you can learn from failure as well as success,” said Scott Snyder, a North Korea analyst at the Council for Foreign Relations. “They’ve got additional data now and the objective they’ve laid out is pretty clear. So this doesn’t or shouldn’t change the sense of urgency about North Korean.
“What it shows is that they are still having enormous difficulties with the long-range missiles. But you have to keep in mind, it doesn’t mean they’re not a threat,” said Mike Green, a former White House national security director on Asia. “Technologically, this shows they are still years away, but you must remember they have hundreds of well-tested short-range missiles that can be aimed at Japan and U.S. assets.”
“It’s a good bet that everyone’s now out there trying to find pieces of the rocket,” said Victor Cha, former national security Asia adviser for President George W. Bush. “One thing I worry a little bit about is that the South Koreans would love to have a piece of it to bring back and examine. And the North is probably trying to do the same. It’s valuable military intelligence, so both sides are probably scrambling. You worry about them bumping into each other.”
ON INTERNAL POLITICS IN THE NORTH
“It’s hugely embarrassing for the North Korean regime. I don’t know how they explain this one away,” said Cha. “They apparently never thought it would fail because this was centerpiece of the whole celebration. A nuke test seems likely. The North will be outraged at whatever comes out of the U.N. Security Council meeting, and that will likely be the justification for it.
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms the attempted North Korean missile launch,” Romney said in a statement Thursday night. “Although the missile test failed, Pyongyang’s action is another blatant violation of unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions and demonstrates once again that Pyongyang is committed to developing long-range missiles with the potential of carrying nuclear weapons.
“Its weapons program poses a clear and growing threat to the United States, one for which President Obama has no effective response. Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived.”