Explaining Obama's Mild Reaction to North Korea's Missile Launch

Obama's restrained condemnation of the missile launch may be part of an effort to revive stalled talks.

By + More

Despite committing what U.S. officials describe as a provocative and "clear violation" of United Nations restrictions, North Korea's rocket launch is being met with a fairly restrained reaction by the Obama administration, which still hopes to revive dormant talks on ending the communist nation's nuclear weapons program.

The caution appears to reflect several factors. The new administration's own review of U.S. policy toward the reclusive North Korean regime is not yet completed but is expected to propose ways to pursue the president's call for seeking a path of "direct" diplomacy with adversaries like Pyongyang. Given the North's pattern of reacting fiercely to sanctions and other tough U.S. or international moves, the administration may well be concerned that extravagantly tough rhetoric could encourage the North to withdraw from six-nation nuclear talks and jeopardize the significant but incomplete progress on denuclearization that has been achieved.

Obama, speaking in Prague, the Czech Republic, on the same day he delivered a major address on nuclear proliferation, criticized North Korea, though with a restrained tone. "North Korea broke the rules, once again, by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles," he said in the Czech capital on one stop of his swing through Europe. He went on to call for action in the U.N. Security Council and also in the broader context of "our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons."

Though conservatives like John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, are contending that the Obama approach is too weak and, in Bolton's words, constitutes "hand-wringing," a number of North Korea watchers advise that patience and tempering U.S. rhetoric will pay dividends. "An overblown response would likely jeopardize the six-party talks to end North Korea's nuclear program," an International Crisis Group briefing paper concluded last week. "What is needed is a calm, coordinated response from the key actors to raise pressure on Pyongyang to return to the talks rather than a divided reaction.... The prospective launch fits a pattern of North Korean attention-seeking when faced with stresses at home, political changes abroad, or failure to get what it wants in negotiations."

Another factor in the U.S. restraint is that China and Russia are urging quiet diplomacy and a minimum of public condemnation, arguing that restraint will enhance the chances that North Korea will again get serious about negotiations, particularly with a fresh push from the Obama administration. Although some sort of rhetorical condemnation from the Security Council is likely to emerge this week, early behind-the-scenes efforts have proved difficult. China's ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Yesui, declared the moment "very sensitive" and asked council members to "refrain from taking actions that might lead to increased tensions."

A further reason may be the partial failure of the North Korean launch itself. Although the North claims that it successfully shot an experimental communications satellite into orbit on Sunday, it appears that the payload—whatever it was—fell into the Pacific Ocean rather than soaring into space. That apparent failure—reported by U.S. and South Korean officials and outside specialists—would be the third high-profile rocketry failure by the North in recent years.

The rocket that was fired is believed to have been some version of a Taepodong-2, a multistage missile that, when fully developed, could, in theory, carry a warhead thousands of miles to targets as far away as Alaska and Hawaii—and perhaps farther. Though every launch gives North Korean scientists information that should be useful in perfecting their rocketry, the apparent failure to send the payload into orbit this weekend serves as a reminder for all that Pyongyang is still struggling with long-range rocketry.

Diplomats from the United States and elsewhere are likely to perceive that outcome as affording more time to seek a diplomatic solution to North Korea's twin nuclear and missile programs.