WASHINGTON — As North Korea said Tuesday that it was ready to launch a long-range rocket later this week, prompting stern criticism from U.S. officials, experts said the planned launch revealed weaknesses in American policy toward the rogue nation.
Saying the launch would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions that bar North Korea from testing ballistic missiles, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States would "work with our partners on next steps if North Korea goes through with this provocation."
Speaking after a meeting with her Japanese counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that the United States would pursue "appropriate action" against Pyongyang at the Security Council for an act that she argued would threaten regional security. Already, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines have gone on alert, with some airlines canceling or rerouting regional flights to steer clear of the rocket's trajectory.
The launch had been planned at least since last fall to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader" and North Korea's first president, who died in 1994. Then, in February, the government of the new president, Kim's grandson, Kim Jong Un, struck a deal with the United States for 250,000 tons of food aid for the impoverished nation in exchange for shutting down its nuclear program and suspending long-range missile testing.
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Last month, however, North Korea made it clear that it intended to go ahead with the "space launch" of a rocket carrying the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite, which is intended to transmit data about weather conditions. North Korean officials have dismissed claims that the launch is a pretext for developing missile technology, but the United States, Britain, South Korea, Japan and other countries protested, and the Obama administration canceled the offer of food aid.
Last weekend, a South Korean intelligence report was leaked that indicated North Korea now was planning a separate underground nuclear-weapon test. On Sunday, North Korean officials gave a small group of Western journalists a rare peek at the site from which they'll launch their rocket later this week, perhaps as early as Thursday.
Experts said the apparent failure of the U.S. food deal illustrated how bilateral deals between Washington and Pyongyang — which didn't fully involve China — were problematic. While an offer of 250,000 tons of food is substantial, a report last year by the International University of Japan found that food aid from China — including handouts as well as food sold at discounted "friends' prices" — in most years far exceeds what the U.S. would have provided.
That means that in the minds of North Korean officials, the American food aid offer "has symbolic importance, but doesn't really matter much. They don't think they have much to lose," said one U.S. expert spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he works closely on negotiations between the countries.
On Tuesday, a Washington-based advocacy group, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, called on the United States to "provide food aid that reaches the hungry." But if the aid that's being withheld isn't seen as essential, it leaves the United States with little bargaining power, experts said.
"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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