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Punish or engage? No easy answer to North Korea's nuclear ambitions

North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket Sunday has policymakers in the United States, South Korea and China scrambling to answer to an old, vexing question: What's the most effective strategy for dealing with an isolated state with a growing arsenal of increasingly dangerous weapons?

Since North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, the United States, South Korea and their allies have tried a range of measures to stop Pyongyang from becoming a fully armed nuclear state. They have implemented heavy economic sanctions and held multilateral meetings, the six-party talks. On occasion, South Korea has even tried giving North Korea unconditional aid with the hope that it would create a better climate for negotiations.

Yet North Korea continues to move forward with its nuclear ambitions.

The rocket launch came a little more than one month after the country’s fourth nuclear test, when the state’s official media announced the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, which would be its most powerful weapon tested to date. Though an investigation involving air sampling and seismic analysis is still underway, experts do not believe it was in fact a hydrogen bomb.

North Korea claims that its testing of long-range rocket technology is simply part of a peaceful space program, while the United Nations and U.S. view its tests as steps toward becoming able to strike the mainland U.S. with a missile armed with a nuclear warhead.

U.S. Strategic Command said the launch placed two objects into orbit — the rocket body and an unknown payload — which are now circling over both poles.

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council debated stiffening sanctions for North Korea as punishment for the launch.

China, however, has indicated that it would prefer dialogue rather than more sanctions. China is North Korea’s only real ally, and has customarily used its diplomatic sway to shield North Korea from punishment.

Amid the unease, the Pentagon is considering deploying a high-altitude missile defense system in South Korea to increase protection from a possible attack.

“We're beginning the consultations now in the coming days with the South Koreans and we expect that this will move in an expeditious fashion,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Monday.

The $800-million system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, bolsters other lower-altitude systems already in place as well as U.S. warships in the Pacific that can shoot down missiles. It can hit targets hundreds of miles away.

If South Korea allows the system to be deployed, it risks damaging a blossoming trade and diplomatic relationship with China.

China has opposed the system out of concern that it could be used against its own missile arsenal, and this week summoned South Korea’s ambassador to Beijing to register its displeasure with the idea.

A Tuesday editorial in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper in China, argued that deployment of the system “will not put an end to the vicious interaction of varied forces in the region, only causing more troubles to Northeast Asia.”

Charles Armstrong, a historian and North Korea specialist at Columbia University, said deploying the missile defense technology could backfire by nudging North Korea further down the road toward full nuclear armament. “Such demonstrations of military force might make the U.S. and South Korea feel better, but they actually feed into North Korea’s claim that they’re surrounded militarily and need nuclear weapons to defend themselves,” he said.

The debate over how to deal with the volatile state is at its core about punishment versus engagement. Experts said there are no great options.

Sung Yoon Lee, an assistant professor at the Fletcher School of international affairs at Tufts University, said the U.S. should impose unilateral sanctions that would not only punish North Korea but also penalize any entity that does business with it. “The majority of transactions around the world are still carried out in U.S. dollars, so that gives the U.S. tremendous power to cut North Korea off financially,” Lee said.

Others see negotiation as the best approach. “Over the long run we need something like the Iranian deal, which combines sanctions with a diplomatic road map that would show North Korea how they might benefit by giving up their nukes,” Armstrong said.

U.S. officials said Sunday’s launch never posed a risk to North America. Thus far, North Korea has not demonstrated that its missiles have the range to hit Hawaii, much less the U.S. mainland.

Borowiec is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

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