WASHINGTON (AP) – The Obama administration is drawing no “red line” for North Korea after a successful long-range rocket test, tempering the public condemnation to avoid raising tensions or possibly rewarding the reclusive communist nation with too much time in the global spotlight.
The U.S. has told the world that it won’t tolerate Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons or Syria’s use of chemical stockpiles on rebels. North Korea, in some ways, is a trickier case.
The U.S. wants to forcefully condemn what it believes is a “highly provocative act,” and that was the first public reaction from the White House late Tuesday. But it also is mindful of the turmoil on the Korean peninsula and treading carefully, offering no threat of military action or unspecified “consequences” associated with other hot spots.
Just two years ago, the North allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship and shelled a South Korean island. Some 50 South Koreans died in the attacks that brought the peninsula to the brink of war.
North Korea already has the deterrent of a nuclear weapons arsenal. The U.S. is bound to protect next-door South Korea from any attack, but has no desire now for a military conflict.
Raising the rhetoric can even serve as a reward for seeking attention to a government that starves its own citizens while seeking to leverage any military advance it makes into much-needed aid.
“No doubt Pyongyang is pleased. It again has unsettled its leading adversaries. And it is in the news around the world,” said Doug Bandow, senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “The allies should have responded with a collective yawn. After all, the plan is nothing new. The DPRK has been testing rockets and missiles for years.”
The United States remains technically at war with the notoriously unpredictable North Koreans, whose opaque leadership has confounded successive American administrations. With no peace agreement, only the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War keeps the U.S. and the North from hostilities. Some 28,500 U.S. troops remain in South Korea to deter potential aggression.
Wednesday’s surprising, successful launch raises the stakes, taking North Korea one step closer to being capable of lobbing nuclear bombs over the Pacific. As the North refines its technology, its next step may be conducting another nuclear test, experts warn.
The three-stage rocket is similar in design to a model capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as California. The rocket launched a satellite into space. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would study the launch.
“I think we still have to assess just exactly what happened here,” Panetta told CNN in an interview Wednesday. He said part of the assessment would examine the final stage that launched the satellite “to determine, really, whether or not that did work effectively or whether it tumbled into space. I mean, that’s the issue that we need to assess.”
Despite its technological advances and military bluster, it’s doubtful that the North intends to strike first against the U.S.
Even so, Panetta said the U.S. has the capability to prevent such a strike.
“I’m very confident that American defense capabilities are able, no problem, to block a rocket like this one,” he told CNN when asked about the capability of U.S. missile defense systems.
North Korea has spent decades threatening but avoiding a direct confrontation with the tens of thousands of American forces in South Korea and Japan. The government has remained firmly in power despite a drought-plagued agricultural sector that leaves many North Koreans in search of food and a crumbling economy that affords few any chance of social betterment.
“It is regrettable that the leadership in Pyongyang chose to take this course in flagrant violation of its international obligations,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. He said the U.S. would try to further isolate North Korea in response.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the launch “highly provocative and a threat to regional security.” It will only further impoverish North Koreans, she said.
Neither Carney nor Nuland elaborated on possible consequences. The White House’s initial statement referred only to potential action at the U.N. Security Council, which condemned North Korea on Wednesday and said it would urgently consider “an appropriate response.” The threat of sanctions is unclear; China, North Korea’s benefactor, holds veto power.
Analysts were mixed on whether a tougher reaction was appropriate.
“There has been an unspoken tendency in the United States to discount these tests as yet another foolish attempt by the technologically backward and bizarre country,” said Victor Cha, a Korea expert at Georgetown University and former White House policy director for Asia. “This is no longer acceptable. The apparent success of this test makes North Korea one of the only nonallied countries outside of China and the Soviet Union to develop long-range missile technology that could potentially reach the United States.”
The administration’s restrained response contrasts with the warnings of military action against Iran and Syria for actions far less imminently threatening to the United States, but directly threatening Israel, an important ally.
Obama has said he won’t allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and insists that he won’t get involved in a policy of containment similar to the one the U.S. is stuck with in North Korea. He promises that he isn’t bluffing.
The U.S. and Israel have held talks over what benchmarks in uranium enrichment and weapons work the Iranians would have to reach for possible military action to be triggered.
What’s clear from his words is that Obama wouldn’t wait for Iran to have a bomb, meaning the threshold for a U.S. attack against Tehran is far lower than against North Korea, which tested its first nuclear weapon more than six years ago.
As for Syria, the president has issued a “red line” to President Bashar Assad’s government concerning chemical weapons that have never been used and are accompanied by no weapon capable of delivering them anywhere near the United States.
U.S. officials fear the increasingly desperate Assad could deploy the weapons in a bid to win a civil war that has left more than 40,000 people dead since March 2011. Or, he could transfer some weapons to anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hezbollah.
Judged on capacity and not intent, either of those scenarios would pale in comparison to the North being able to fire a nuclear warhead at the continental United States. But with U.S. officials convinced that Assad’s exit may be nearing, the sterner American cautions in Syria may be less likely to be tested. If they are, the United States wouldn’t have to worry about nuclear weapons as a counter-threat.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.