"Look, I like playing on the winning team, but North Korea consistently kicks our butts diplomatically," the U.S. expert said.
Some experts say there was a lot to be learned from a North Korean launch. Previous launches, after all, have shown Pyongyang's rocket technology to be lacking.
The program made its debut in 1984 with six short-range launches, three of which failed. A decade later, Pyongyang tested cruise missiles that missed their targets.
By 1998, the North Koreans were trying three-stage rockets, allegedly to put satellites into orbit — the same reason given for the looming launch — but their rockets again failed. A third stage on a Taepodong-1 rocket failed in 1998. In 2006, a Taepodong-2 failed 40 seconds after launch. In 2009, a first-stage rocket splashed into the Sea of Japan and the final two stages prematurely fell into the Pacific.
No one doubts that North Korea has been working to improve its rockets since then, but the only sure way to gauge its progress is to observe a launch, analysts said.
Joel Wit, the editor of 38 North, a website on North Korea, said that while the rocket launch had long been inevitable, the nuclear test wasn't. Still, he added, it's North Korea's response to international condemnation of its 2009 launch.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there were more announcements to come," he said. "If the launch and test are successful, we could hear that they've figured out how to make a nuclear warhead for their rockets. We don't know as much as we should about what is going on inside North Korea, but this is how they play the game."
At the Pentagon, officials declined to describe what measures they'd put in place to respond to a North Korean test, saying only that they're "comfortable" with their defensive capabilities. Spokesman George Little said, "We hope it doesn't happen, but if it does we'll be ready to track it."
Zachary Hosford, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan research center in Washington, said the meaning of the test could be as much about internal North Korean politics as international relations. For one thing, he said, it's not clear whose idea the launch was; it was planned during the long reign of the current president's father, Kim Jong Il, before Kim Jong Un announced it last month.
Former South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo, writing in the English-language version of the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, said that "the missile launch was meticulously planned for some time and is not the result of conflict and confusion within the North's leadership after Kim Jong Il's death. But the launch will end up doing North Korea more harm than good, further isolating it from the international community and exacerbating its economic woes."
Hosford noted, however, that despite the international condemnations, the internal fallout from backing off the test could be more damaging to the country's new leader.
"Kim Jong Un can't back away without appearing to show disrespect to his father, and to appear weak," Hosford said. "This launch is part of a celebration, and new leaders don't rob their people of celebrations."
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