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Analysis: N. Korean rocket won't distract U.S. from bigger prize

  • Story Highlights
  • Washington can't let the rocket launch go unanswered, even though it failed
  • U.S. can't be distracted from main goal: denuclearization of Korean peninsula
  • U.S. envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, signals willingness to talk
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By Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer
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(CNN) -- Does anyone even remember that North Korea launched a long-range rocket last weekend, prompting fears that it could hit Japan or even Hawaii?

An image from DigitalGlobe, a satellite imagery firm, shows the North Korean launch last weekend.

An image from DigitalGlobe, a satellite imagery firm, shows the North Korean launch last weekend.

By all accounts, the launch of the rocket, parts of which fell into the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, was a bust.

But so was North Korea's goal of sustaining international attention at a time the world is focused on Pakistan or the world economic crisis -- issues the "hermit kingdom" can't even begin to fathom.

Negotiations at the U.N. Security Council over a response lasted all week. North Korea is slipping from the headlines, along with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's promises of tough consequences.

Washington can't let the rocket launch go unanswered, even though it failed, and even the long-term threat to U.S. national security is debatable. Yet, the United States is ambivalent about how to respond to what it continues to call a "provocative act" by North Korea and a violation of Security Council resolutions.

This was all so predictable. We journalists could have written the story before the launch even took place: The U.S. was convinced the launch was going to happen. It was pretty sure of North Korean claims that the payload was a satellite, and not a missile loaded with a nuclear weapon.

Washington was ready with a tough position at the Security Council in response to the launch, but was realistic about its inability to get Russia and China, permanent members that have veto power, to impose stronger sanctions on North Korea for violating the current ones.

In a way, the launch was a sideshow, a weekend distraction that isn't dramatically going to change the diplomatic game as we know it. That is because the U.S. is already thinking about when it can restart the so-called six-party talks.

Those multilateral talks, aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear program, stalled shortly before the Bush administration left office.

The stated reason was because Pyongyang would not agree to a verification regime to prove its stated nuclear claims. The real reason was because North Korea, the masters at brinkmanship, was waiting to see what the Obama administration was willing to offer for its acquiescence.

Obama and Clinton offered an attractive deal, not unlike that offered by the Bush administration: normal relations and a peace treaty in exchange for North Korea ending its nuclear program once and for all. But the North Koreans have not made an effort to take the Obama administration up on its offer of engagement, perhaps because the regime has trepidation with the idea of rejoining the international community becoming a reality.

In a way, a better relationship with the U.S. and more openness to the world actually could put the regime at risk.

The North Koreans pretty much backed themselves into a corner with this launch. The threats went so far, launching the rocket became an issue of saving face. Pyongyang realized there would be strong reaction by the international community, but it really had no choice in the end but to go ahead.

Diplomacy here is delicate. Everyone agrees the launch was a bad idea, but countries like Russia and, more importantly, China are less eager to impose sanctions. South Korea and Japan, which see North Korea as much more of a potential threat, want to be much tougher. The U.S. has to straddle all of these interests and come up with some sort of middle ground.

That middle ground will probably be some sort of statement out of the Security Council that condemns the actions but has no real "teeth," as they say in U.N. circles, meaning North Korea will fail to suffer any fresh consequences for its actions.

The U.S. wants to handle this in a way that will preserve the ability to restart the six-party talks after an appropriate period of criticizing North Korea for the launch. The U.S. envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said as much last week. He told reporters he was ready to travel to Pyongyang, after an acceptable cooling-off period, to meet with North Korean officials about how to restart the talks.

Despite its extreme unhappiness with the North Korean actions, the Obama administration isn't going to be distracted from its main goal, which is denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. And at least for now, everyone from Clinton on down believes the six-party talks are the way to do just that.

To be sure, dealing with Pyongyang is an exercise in extreme patience. And it is costly. North Korea is adept as extracting the highest price for its willingness to negotiate. But officials insist that with the right combination of patience and deep pockets, the U.S. can wear the North Koreans down.

As one senior administration official put it to me, "We can't take our eyes off the prize."

The wild card, as always, is the North Koreans themselves. Even the most strenuous diplomacy by the U.S. and its partners will not work unless Pyongyang wants to play the game. At some point, officials say, they need to see a sign from the North Koreans that they are done with the threats, the rhetoric and the brinkmanship and are ready to talk.

All About United Nations Security CouncilPyongyangNorth KoreaNuclear Weapons

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