WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's administration was three days old when North Korean officials privately told their Chinese allies that they planned soon to "test the waters" with the new U.S. president.
That test could come as early as Saturday, when the window opens for North Korea's planned launch of a long-range Taepodong-2 rocket that could fly over Japan and rattle governments in northeast Asia and beyond.
If successful, the launch will pose the first significant global security challenge to the Obama team, and a tricky one at that, according to U.S. officials and Asia experts.
So far, Obama has struggled to forge a united front on the issue among countries such as Japan, which is demanding a tough international response, and China, which argues for restraint.
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Obama wants the United Nations Security Council to send a stern message to Pyongyang. He also wants, however, to avoid precipitating a full-blown crisis or prompting the unpredictable North Koreans to scuttle the moribund six-nation talks on eliminating their nuclear weapons, a senior State Department official said. He requested anonymity in order to speak frankly.
The launch is the latest in a series of provocations by North Korea, and it comes amid growing questions about succession in the isolated communist state following leader Kim Jong-Il's stroke in August.
"Unfortunately, it leaves Japan, South Korea and the U.S. with few good options," the International Crisis Group said this week in a study, which reported North Korea's January warning to China.
The Taepodong-2 missile itself poses little immediate threat. On its only previous test flight, in 2006, it malfunctioned 40 seconds after lift-off. The main danger foreseen this time is rocket debris raining down on northern Japan.
The U.S. and Japan have retracted previous warnings that they might try to shoot down the missile, which North Korea says would be an act of war.
North Korea insists that the test is part of a nascent space launch program. The U.S. and other nations say that's a mask for the North's development of a long-range ballistic missile that might some day be fitted with a miniaturized nuclear warhead — or sold to any buyer.
Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, meeting in London Thursday, agreed that there must be a "unified response from the international community" in event of a launch.
Unity may be hard to secure, however.
The launch is likely to trigger an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, U.S. and Japanese diplomats said.
However, China, and to a lesser extent Russia, which have veto power in the Security Council, are cool to imposing new sanctions on North Korea.
Both nations disagree with the U.S., Japan and South Korea that the launch is a violation of a Security Council resolution, passed days after North Korea's October 2006 nuclear test, the senior State Department official said. The resolution demands that the North "not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile."
North Korea claims that the rocket, which it says will place an experimental satellite in orbit, is part of a civilian space program and isn't a ballistic missile. The technologies are closely related.
"To the degree that other parties offer different responses, North Korea wins," said Nicholas Szechenyi, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research organization in Washington.
Some analysts say the U.S. and other nations shouldn't overreact to the test.
David Wright, a missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that promotes arms reductions, said that while a successful launch would advance North Korea's missile capabilities, it doesn't by itself mean that Pyongyang has the ability to send a nuclear warhead over intercontinental distances.
"The point is, it isn't automatic," Wright said.
In its report, the International Crisis Group said "pressure alone is very unlikely to influence Pyongyang's behavior in a positive way."
A tough response, such as shooting down the rocket, could imperil the six-party nuclear talks, worsen tensions on the Korean peninsula and boost North Korean hardliners in the country's apparent succession struggle, the report said.
In the end, Obama may find that, like his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, he has little choice but to try to negotiate with North Korea, as frustrating as that can be.
After the North's October 2006 nuclear test, the Bush administration convinced the Security Council to vote for tough sanctions. Less than three months later, however, Bush reversed course, top U.S. and North Korean envoys met in Berlin, Germany, and a nuclear disarmament agreement was given new life.
That agreement is now stalemated over how to verify the North's inventory of its nuclear programs.
"Eventually, I wouldn't be surprised if they go back to the six-party talks," Szechenyi said. Between dialogue and pressure, "The Obama administration has to figure out the right balance," he said.
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