By Elise Labott
It's what administration officials refer to as the North Korean "two-step," in which one daring act by Pyongyang is followed by another. This time, Washington and its allies are expecting North Korea to conduct a third nuclear bomb test shortly after the launch.
In April 2009, North Korea followed up a long-range missile test with a nuclear test. Then, after North Korea sunk the South Korean navy warship Cheonan in March 2010, it topped itself later that year by shelling South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea off the countries' west coast.
Officials say Pyongyang already signaled it's following the same playbook with the launch. Before he died in December, former leader Kim Jong Il promised that in 2012, North Korea would become a "strong and prosperous nation" - with festivities marking Kim Il Sung's birthday marking its coming-out party. The launch was one of the last edicts Kim issued before he died, and the satellite is named for him.
Since its announcement about the impending launch, the North has also warned intercepting the satellite will be regarded as an act of war that could carry tremendous consequences.
"Part of how we react to this has to be with the near-certainty that this is the first of many provocations in the near future," one senior Obama administration official said.
Even if North Korea is, as it claims, merely carrying Kim Jong Il's last will and testament by feting his father's centennial in style, Washington says the launch helps North Korea further develop ballistic missile technology which could deliver a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world, including the United States. Administration officials and other experts have seen no proof the North Koreans are there yet, but they say a successful launch would be a watershed moment for the North's weapons program and global efforts to stop it.
"If they are able to put a satellite into orbit, this creates a new strategic reality," said Victor Cha, a former Asia Director for the White House and author of the new book Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. "It means they have intercontinental ballistic missile reach, which could reach Alaska or Hawaii, the first country outside of the Soviet Union and China to do that."
So what happens the day after? While the United States and its allies naturally will embark on a period of chest-beating, and possibly even punitive measures against North Korea, senior administration officials admit the launch probably won't dramatically change the approach to North Korea over time.
Within days of the launch, officials say the U.S. plan to take up the issue of North Korea at the UN Security Council, where Washington will seek action against Pyongyang for violating existing U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from using long-range missile technology. Coincidentally, the United States holds the rotating Security Council presidency for the month of April and will be in a strong position to "seize the Council of the matter," as diplomats say.
What Washington is able to push through the Security Council is an entirely other matter. Officials say the United States would prefer a tough resolution "with teeth," one that imposes some measures against the North, rather than a more modest presidential statement that merely slaps the North on the wrist. China, Pyongyang's closest ally, is generally allergic to imposing sanctions on any nation and could hold up such a move by exercising its veto.
But even though China has been reluctant to pressure North Korea, fearing a collapse of the country and an influx of refugees across its border, China has made no secret of its displeasure with North Korea's intentions. In rare critical statements, Beijing's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it called North Korea's ambassador in a for a tongue-lashing after the announcement and signaled it could not stop the Security Council from taking action. This could signal that China's impatience with North Korea may spur them into going along with some action.
Since the United States knows Chinese frustration with North Korea will dictate the trajectory of diplomacy, officials say the discussion with Beijing now is about limits.
"We are asking them, what is your absolute limit," one official said. "Is it 10 North Korean nuclear weapons? Is it 20 or 30? What do we have to do to make sure that we never get to that point?"
As for the Leap Day deal with North Korea, White House Spokesman Jay Carney said this week the launch would "make it virtually impossible" to go ahead with shipments of American food aid. But senior officials say privately the administration is debating the level to which the deal would be dead or merely in abeyance.
In an election year in which President Obama has been accused by his Republican rivals of coddling dictators, several administration officials are ready for all engagement with the North to come to a grinding halt. Others advocate trying to salvage any possible diplomatic leverage and not give North Korea an excuse to follow up the launch with a nuclear test.
A complete collapse of the deal with North Korea would also halt the return to North Korea inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency after a three year hiatus, which Washington views as key to getting a better handle on the level of Pyongyang's weapons programs.
"They are going to do it anyway," one senior official said about another nuclear test. "So we are engaged in kind of a Kabuki dance here. But it's good if we can keep some sort of a line open and preserve at least a quarter of a dialogue, so we can come back to the table eventually."
This is the box the United States finds itself in with North Korea.
U.S. policy toward Pyongyang has centered for years around what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls "strategic patience." Yet the cycle of North Korean antics, followed by condemnation, then followed by a cooling-off period before eventual re-engagement with the North has allowed North Korea to play for time. The longer a delay in reaching a deal with North Korea to curb its program, the longer North Korea has to further develop it.
John Park, a Korea expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace, said the launch offers an opportunity for a new international response.
Until now the United States and its allies, South Korea and Japan, have had a hard time convincing much of the world that North Korea presents a threat to the wider world. But Park notes the planned flight path of the rocket, which could see debris land in busy sea lanes or population centers in Southeast Asia, has seen leaders of Vietnam, Philippines and even in some European countries ringing alarm bells.
"We have an opportunity to try some things we haven't been able to try before," Park said.
While not advocating an attack on North Korea, retired U.S. Gen. Walter L. Sharp suggests the administration start working to support regime change from within North Korea now, before the country's increased capability years down makes such a task more difficult.
"The longer this goes on, the more dangerous this is getting," Sharp, the former chief of U.S. and South Korean combined forces and the U.N. command there, recently told an audience at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"This launch, successful or not, is going to potentially be a real game changer for us to really decide how are we going to force a change in North Korea, so that we don't end up in a place of several years that will be really dangerous to the United States, South Korea and our allies."