The United States and its allies labored Sunday to devise a concerted response to North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket, but quickly ran into divisions over how to confront the defiant regime.
The United Nations Security Council met in a hastily called session to consider official condemnation of the launch, but ended the meeting with no immediate action beyond a promise to continue to seek a common response in the coming days.
The U.S. and its allies fear that North Korea was testing its ability to deliver nuclear weapons by firing off the three-stage rocket, which flew over Japan on Sunday morning and plunged into the Pacific. President Obama and other leaders were quick to condemn the launch.
“North Korea broke the rules once again by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles,” said Obama, who was awakened Sunday with word of the launch.
Obama, who is visiting Prague, Czech Republic, said the move threatened countries “near and far” and underscored “the need for action not just this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons.”
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, recently returned from the Group of 20 nations’ economic summit in London with Obama and other leaders, said North Korea must be held accountable for its actions.
“This is an extremely provocative act, and it cannot be dismissed,” Aso said.
North Korea has insisted that the launch was designed to put a communications satellite into orbit. Within hours of the three-stage rocket lifting off from the Musudan-ri launch facility at 11:30 a.m. local time, the state-run North Korean news agency declared it a success.
“The carrier rocket and the satellite developed by our own wisdom and technology are the fruit of our struggle to enhance our nation’s space science technology to a higher level,” said the Korean Central News Agency.
But U.S. and South Korean defense officials and weapons experts later reported that the rocket failed to send a satellite into orbit, if that was the goal.
American officials maintain that the launch violated terms of a U.N. resolution in 2006 that imposed sanctions on the North after it tested a nuclear device. But China and Russia disputed that view, saying the resolution was ambiguous in its language.
After three hours of talks Sunday afternoon, the Security Council issued a brief statement saying members would spend the next couple of days discussing how to respond to the North Korean launch. But the 15 members could not agree on wording to characterize their joint statement.
Most members, led by the U.S. and Japanese ambassadors, wanted an immediate and robust condemnation of the launch in that initial statement. But the Chinese and Russian envoys are said to have resisted, with at least one member balking at a statement that would even express “concern” over the launch, according to a Western diplomat.
Later, Chinese Ambassador Yesui Zhang told reporters he wanted a “cautious and proportionate” response to avoid “increased tensions” and not jeopardize further nuclear negotiations with the North Koreans.
But U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said Washington’s view was that “the most appropriate response to an action of this gravity would be a Security Council resolution.”
The United States reportedly has floated the idea of a new resolution that would toughen the travel ban and asset freezes on officials involved in the North Korean missile program. But no draft resolutions were being circulated. Rice met briefly with the Chinese and Russian delegates late in the day to see whether they would veto any resolution, which either could do as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
Some Council members might resist sanctions that are too tough for fear they would keep North Korea from returning to the bargaining table. The regime has been involved in on-again, off-again disarmament talks with the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.
Pyongyang has already threatened to end negotiations if there was any criticism of the launch at the United Nations.
“You’re dealing with a very unpredictable actor who doesn’t necessarily respond well to pressure or to incentives,” said a senior U.S. official traveling with Obama. “They’re so isolated already. There’s no clear incentive that has proven to work.”
The administration wants to continue the six-party talks and, “through the process, have them [North Korea] come to understand it’s in their interest” to follow the rules, said the official, who requested anonymity.
A foreign diplomat in Washington recalled that even when the United Nations, roused by North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006, imposed sanctions, “the lasting effect was not so great.”
Charles L. Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator on North Korea, said the United States and its allies might be able to obtain a relatively mild and nonbinding “presidential statement” from the Security Council condemning the launch. He said that that should be viewed as a diplomatic achievement, because it would enable members to say that the council had spoken with one voice and had not allowed North Korea to escape censure.
Even so, he said, it was likely to further delay the six-party talks and might push the United States toward accepting one-on-one conversations with the North Koreans as a means of restarting the disarmament effort.
The U.S. has long resisted that path in favor of the joint talks, which bring the regional pressure of North Korea’s immediate neighbors to bear on the regime.
To the North Koreans, who favor direct talks with the U.S., “that looks pretty good,” said Pritchard, who is now president of the Korea Economic Institute.
Wendy Sherman, who oversaw North Korea policy for President Clinton, said she didn’t think the Obama administration would use one act of censure that clearly could capture the North Koreans’ attention: Returning them to the official U.S. list of countries that support terrorism. The Bush administration removed the regime from the list last year, partly in hopes of improving the North’s cooperation on disarmament.
“I suspect that the president will not do that,” Sherman said on CNN, “because, indeed, we have to get back to the bargaining table. That would probably make getting back to the six-party talks a longer route to go.”
Victor D. Cha, who was President Bush’s top advisor on North Korea, said that while he favored targeted financial sanctions on Pyongyang, China’s resistance made action at the U.N. uncertain. But he said North Korea’s launch would increase international pressure on China to act, and Beijing might move behind the scenes on its neighbor, which depends on it for trade and energy.
In the Chinese media, North Korea’s launch was generally portrayed as a peaceful advance of its space program, not a military threat.
“As a member of the United Nations, North Korea has a right to explore space. What gives the United States and Japan the right to object?” wrote a blogger, Long Kaifeng, on Sina.com, one of China’s largest Web portals.
Russia reported that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had a telephone conversation in connection with the North Korean launch.
“The sides spoke out in favor of joint efforts aimed at preventing the destabilization of the situation in northeast Asia, and also for the preservation of the six-side negotiation process on the nuclear problem of the Korean peninsula,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry statement published on its website Sunday. “An agreement was reached to keep up close contacts and continue consultations on the issue.”
Tribune Washington Bureau reporter Christi Parsons in Prague, and Times staff reporters John Glionna in Seoul, Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.