By Elise Labott
North Korea's success in launching a satellite into orbit has put the Obama administration on unfamiliar ground, no longer able to dismiss North Korea's efforts as failure but loath to acknowledge its success.
Moreover, beyond its typical response of statements of condemnation and efforts at strengthening sanctions, the U.S. does not seem to have a playbook for curbing North Korea's increasingly threatening behavior.
The U.S. government was braced before the launch, with Asia hands across the U.S. government tracking North Korea's preparations and warning against going through with it. Officials have voiced concern that such a feat would prompt an arms race in East Asia.
"We've been very concerned about their firing this missile, in violation of every international standard and rule," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CNN's Erin Burnett. "It's clear that have one of the reasons we're rebalancing in the Pacific is to deal with the threat from North Korea, and we will. We're prepared to do that. We will respond if we have to."
But now the launch has been completed, the Obama administration seems to be struggling with how to respond. Victor Cha, who holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that while Washington is not downplaying the test, the administration is sending the wrong signals by not even issuing a statement after the launch.
Comparing the response to President Obama's strong statements last week warning Syria's president not to use chemical weapons, Cha noted that there was no statement of condemnation from the president. Instead, the White House statement condemning the launch was issued by his press secretary, Jay Carney.
"There here has been an unspoken tendency in the United States to discount these tests as yet another foolish attempt by the technologically backward and bizarre country," Cha wrote in a posting on the group's website. "This is no longer acceptable."
Even as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice pushes the U.N. Security Council for a tough resolution condemning the launch, senior U.S. officials seemed loath to acknowledge that the launch was a success.
North Korea managed for the first time to get through all the stages of sending a satellite into space. But when asked whether the launch was a success, Panetta withheld judgment.
"We're still assessing just exactly what happened here to look at each of the stages and determine whether or not it really was a success," Panetta said in the interview on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront."
No matter the public line, North Korea's launch is a big deal and creates a new strategic reality. Launching a payload into space means it has intercontinental ballistic missile capability with the potential to reach Alaska or Hawaii. North Korea is the first country not aligned with the U.S. to be able to do that, other than the Soviet Union and China.
The Security Council swiftly condemned the launch as a violation of resolutions. In April when North Korea first tried, and failed, to launch a satellite, the council promised to "take action accordingly in the event of a further DPRK launch."
U.S. officials say they are encouraged by statements by Russia and, to a lesser extent, China criticizing the launch, but whether that tough talk translates into tough measures in the Security Council remains to be seen.
Although North Korea has made significant advances in its weapons program, officials say the program is still in its rudimentary stages: about where the U.S. was in the 1960s. Sanctions have worked, and officials say more can be done.
Rice is leading discussions in New York about possible sanctions against North Korea's shipping, insurance and banking sectors. But China, whose support on this is critical, could fail to go along with harsher steps, citing the fact that the launch did not rise to the level of the president himself issuing a statement, observed Cha.
But even if the U.S. can't get past the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the council, it always has the option of working outside the U.N. system to implement a tough sanctions regime with its allies, similar to the crippling measures the world has imposed upon Iran.
"There will be blood," one senior U.S. official said. "It just depends on how it's drawn."
Yet despite being one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world, North Korea's technology is advancing by leaps and bounds and can still demonstrate success.
Officials say the U.S. expects North Korea to now be working on re-entry devices and miniaturization, necessary to convert a rocket into a missile. But even without those developments, the administration fears that North Korea can already hit the United States with a conventional weapon or worse, a chemical weapon. North Korea's chemical weapons stockpile is among the largest in the world.
"They already have a terrorist weapon that can hit the United States, which is exceedingly concerning. And that is what we are telling the Chinese and Russians," one official said. "There is no question North Korea is moving further to the top of the charts when it comes to foreign policy for the administration. They wanted our attention. And now they have got it."
Yet the same old challenge remains: What can the U.S. do, short of taking military action? The Obama administration was burned when Pyongyang attempted the satellite launch in April, after negotiating the so-called Leap Day deal in which the North agreed to stop nuclear activity at its main facility in Yongbyon, impose a moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile launches and allow international inspectors into nuclear sites. Officials say the White House will be hesitant to negotiate with North Korea again.
In lieu of engaging North Korea, officials and experts said, the U.S. could refocus on containment and strengthening efforts to curb its weapons program. In addition to tightening existing sanctions and examining further ones, the U.S. can intensify measures to curb North Korean procurement of sensitive technology, including the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led effort to stem the illicit trafficking of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems. Close to 100 countries are members of the program.
Moreover, U.S. officials say it's important to get North Korea, and indeed the world, to understand that Washington and Pyongyang are not the only two players in this game. In a globalized world, it's neither possible nor fair for one country to shoulder the security burden, the officials explain.
"There has to be common cause," one senior official said. "Everyone has an interest in Asia, which is now the engine of the world's economic growth. These BRIC economic powers - Brazil, Russia, India and China - out there need to care, because this is coming to affect a market near them."