A long-range rocket launch by North Korea--which is a near certainty at this point--is poised to leave the Obama administration bruised and embarrassed, yet U.S. officials say they are ready to collect valuable intelligence from the exercise.
One Obama administration official confirms the White House went into the proposed food aid deal knowing the launch was planned, saying it is no surprise that North Korea is taking steps to prepare a launch.
So why did the White House—which had prior knowledge of North Korea's intentions—go ahead with the pact? Sources are scratching their heads, unsure of why the administration would set itself up for a major political embarrassment.
North Korea appears ready to launch a long-range rocket as soon as this week, saying it will place a satellite into orbit for civilian purposes. South Korean officials and U.S. analysts, however, believe the real reason for the launch is to test the North's missile technology.
The White House announced this week food aid is on hold, as U.S. officials are waiting to see whether North Korea goes through with their plans.
Sources say the United States delegation that brokered the pact made clear to their North Korean counterparts that Washington would consider the launch a violation both of the March deal, along with previous U.N. Security Council resolutions.
"Both sides understood the other side's position," says Andrew Scobell, a RAND Corporation analyst. The U.S. delegation repeatedly said during the talks that a rocket launch "would be a deal-breaker," says Scobell, noting North Korea countered with an opposite stance.
"Both sides really wanted an agreement for their own reasons," Scobell says. "But the agreement has turned out to be a fiasco. Both the United States and North Korea has some egg on its face here."
Defense analyst Bruce Bennett says the country's new and youthful leader, Kim Jong-Un, is "testing the Obama administration," feeling out Washington to see how it will respond following the launch, Bennett says. This information will factor into how the North plays its next missile and nuclear arms tests, Bennett and other experts say.
Sources are in agreement that the White House likely will move quickly to garner U.N. Security Council support for new economic sanctions against the North, and won't conduct additional talks this year. Experts say sanctions alone appear unlikely to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arms program.
"The Obama administration has been burned by this, and it is unlikely to be interested in re-engaging," says Scobell, predicting frosty relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
If a launch does occur, U.S. analysts will pour over images and data about the rocket and satellite in order to glean any piece of information it can, no matter how tiny.
"The U.S. certainly can learn about the nature of the missile," Bennett says. "Does it perform as advertised? What's its acceleration? Can it reach the U.S.? ... Does the satellite actually do anything interesting?"
Walter Sharp, a retired U.S. Army general who commanded American forces on the Korean peninsula, says he believes the North's goal is to develop long-rang missiles capable to striking Hawaii or Alaska.
South Korean, Japanese and other regional leaders are also very concerned about the pending launch, fearing both damage from falling components—or the entire rocket—as well as an emboldened neighbor. Several nations have vowed to shoot the rocket down if it enters their airspace.
The remaining elephant in the room, which has received little attention amid dire comments from analysts and breathless cable news reports: North Korea's success rate on such launches is not very high.
"Just look back at the previous two," says Sharp, noting one failed well short of its intended distance and the other, before it even left the launch pad, simply "blew up."