Pyongyang and Washington appear headed for a high-stakes diplomatic clash as the North Korea prepares to launch a new rocket—and China stands in the middle.
North Korea appears in the midst of preparing a long-range rocket for launch in a few weeks, claiming it will put a civilian satellite into space. The United States and its allies in the region believe the launch is intended to test long-range ballistic missile technology, which would violate United Nations resolutions and a recent pact between the U.S. and North Korea.
A White House spokesman declined comment Monday on new alledged images of the launch site, which showed fuel tanks and other equipment.
In the meantime, U.S. efforts to convince new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will place new stress on already tense relations between Washington and its top global peer and creditor, Beijing.
"The U.S. will respond by trying to get more resolutions at the U.N., and by pushing the Chinese to punish the North Koreans," says Victor Cha, who directed Asian affairs for the National Security Council under George W. Bush.
Two close U.S. allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, "are quite concerned" about the planned launched, Cha says. Neither nation believes it is solely for civilian purposes, he adds.
South Korean and Japanese leaders say they will shoot down the rocket if it threatens their soil. Both nations are pressing their American counterparts to force China to step in and stop the launch, Cha says.
"From their perspective, the U.S. can never put enough pressure on China," Cha says. "But the reality is that China can pressure all it wants, but there's no way the North Koreans are not going to do this."
That's because the launch is slated to coincide with a high-level political conference in Pyongyang during which Kim Jong-un is expected to receive new titles of power.
One Obama administration official says it is no surprise that North Korea is taking steps to fuel and prepare the rocket for an apparent launch.
During a nuclear arms summit last week in Seoul, Obama issued a warning to Pyongyang's new leader about the launch. "There will be no rewards for provocations," Obama said last Monday.
Washington and its allies have reason to worry, the former NSC staffer says.
If the North's long-range rocket works, it likely would possess a weapon capable of hitting two U.S. states: Hawaii and Alaska, Cha says.
"The next step for North Korea," he says, would be to begin exploring ways to fit such a rocket with a nuclear warhead "because they would have a long-range delivery mechanism."
Obama, in a speech last Tuesday in Seoul, warned North Korea its nuclear arms ambitions will backfire.
"By now, it should be clear: Your provocations and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not achieved the security you seek. They have undermined them," Obama said. "Instead of the dignity you desire, you are more isolated."
Last Wednesday, the State Department announced North Korea had agreed to stop nuclear arms testing. The department also unveiled a deal with North Korea that would see Washington send nearly 250,000 tons of food aid there.
Administration officials deny the food aid pact is a quid pro quo to get North Korea to halt nuclear weapons tests.
GOP presidential candidates and top Republican lawmakers have been hammering Obama over his North Korea policy for months.
For instance, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona is accusing the White House of "effectively violating long-standing U.S. policy not to link North Korean denuclearization commitments to food aid."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has denied that allegation.