LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Iran is not the only country whose nuclear ambitions have preoccupied world leaders this week. North Korea's decision to launch a rocket early Friday drew swift and widespread condemnation in the international community, despite the fact that the rocket disintegrated on takeoff. The White House suspended a large shipment of food to North Korea while the U.N. Security Council called the launch deplorable. But now, there are concerns that North Korea could follow up the failed rocket launch with an underground nuclear test. NPR's Jackie Northam examines what, if anything, could be done to prevent such a test.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: North Korea's failure to successfully launch a long-range rocket may have revealed serious technological flaws. But the fact that the launch took place at all underlined the international community's inability to prevent the country's authoritarian regime from carrying out such acts. Despite the risk of international sanctions and the loss of about 240,000 tons of much-needed food aid from the U.S., North Korea went ahead with the rocket launch. The U.N. Security Council quickly met, but only decided to continue consultations. Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the U.N., would not say whether the council was considering more sanctions.
AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE: I think it's premature, both in my national capacity and as president of the Security Council, to predict or characterize the form of the reaction. We think a credible reaction is important.
NORTHAM: Douglas Paal, an Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the problem with determining how to react to the rocket launch may have a lot to do with uncertainty about what to expect next from North Korea.
DOUGLAS PAAL: Since in 2006 and 2009 they did both missile and nuclear tests, there's an expectation the same pattern will hold this time. And therefore, people should save their reactions and keep them just rhetorical in the near term and then save real sanction resolutions for the possible nuclear test later on.
NORTHAM: Still, Paal says there are already heavy sanctions against North Korea, which hasn't done much to stop its provocative behavior. The other problem is uncertainty about North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his father in December. Robert Gallucci, the chief American negotiator with North Korea during the Clinton administration, says the younger Kim is still burnishing his credentials.
ROBERT GALLUCCI: The only thing that seems clear is that the new young leader might still need or want to prove himself to be a tough and strong person in the face of challenges, domestic and external.
NORTHAM: Analysts say the failed rocket launch could be seen as a huge embarrassment for Kim, which may push him faster into authorizing an underground nuclear test. Gallucci says this all this has been a bad hit for U.S. efforts to get North Korea to the negotiating table, but he's says there's not much the U.S. can do right now.
GALLUCCI: At this point, there probably needs to be a slight period of non-engagement. And then I think the clear message to the North is we are still interested in engagement.
NORTHAM: But Michael Green, with Georgetown University, says the failed rocket launch showed that diplomatic engagement with Korea is not working.
MICHAEL GREEN: We ought to take it as a sign that the North is intent on ignoring our diplomatic efforts and moving towards that nuclear weapons capability. And we ought to look at it as an opportunity and really a necessity that we lay down some very strong markers in the wake of this missile test, even though it failed.
NORTHAM: Green says that means putting some pressure on China to do more to reign in North Korea, its ally.
GREEN: And I think the key is to make it clear that their relative complacency towards North Korea leaves us no choice but to strengthen our own defensive capability and defense cooperation with allies.
NORTHAM: But the Carnegie's Douglas Paal says the U.S. may need to preserve some of its political capital with China to help get its backing for sanctions against Syria and Iran. Paal says this is a period of lousy choices. Jackie Northam NPR News Washington.