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(News Focus) N. Korea's rocket viewed as potential 'game changer'

All Headlines 16:14 December 12, 2012

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's apparent success of a multi-stage rocket launch will deal a blow to U.S. President Barack Obama's "strategic patience" of waiting for Pyongyang to change its course first, experts said Wednesday.

On the other hand, an emboldened North Korean leader Kim Jong-un now holds more cards, they added.

"This success will likely affect the way other countries view the North," said David Wright, co-director and senior scientist for the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The mysterious communist nation's previous launch of a long-range rocket fizzled out about 90 seconds after lift-off, fueling doubts over its missile capability.

The North conducted two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. The question is whether its missile can reach the U.S. mainland and whether it can mount nuclear warheads on that.

With the success of the North's latest rocket launch, confirmed by the U.S. military's initial assessment, it became hard for the U.S. officials to dismiss Pyongyang's claim of its missile technology as just a bluff.

Criticism is expected to grow in Washington over Obama's strategy on Pyongyang.

The launch is "the latest alarming chapter in a decades long story. U.S. policy toward North Korea is a long running failure," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), who will become the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee next month.

An informed diplomatic source said Washington is likely to come under more domestic pressure, while Pyongyang has to up the ante.

"The threat of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile has become really serious," the source said. "This may prove to be a game changer

Bruce Klingner, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation, agreed, saying, "It would represent a significant new security threat to the United States."

The fresh security situation came at a politically sensitive time for Obama, who is set to begin a second term as he faces the daunting task of harmonizing with the winner of South Korea's presidential elections on the North Korea policy.

Although Obama will have to keep focusing on Iran, Syria and Afghanistan issues on the diplomatic front, it will be difficult for him to leave North Korea on the back burner.

The initial U.S. reaction will be seeking to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang through the U.N. Security Council.

Following the North's April launch, the council issued a chairman's statement expressing "its determination to take action accordingly in the event of a further North Korean rocket launch or nuclear test."

Few expect tougher sanctions will be possible, given China's reluctance to push its communist neighbor too far so as to trigger regional instability.

China has a new leadership, which may take a different gesture on North Korea's provocation, but it is unlikely to change its approach fundamentally.

"The United States, South Korea and Japan will be forced in this situation to demand major sanctions against North Korea," Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at RAND Corp., said. "China will have to decide whether it will continue to allow North Korea effectively dictate Chinese policy on such issues."

Bennett stressed that Pyongyang's rocket launch appears to have been attributable to internal factors linked to Kim Jong-un's attempt to solidify his control in his first year in power.

In that sense, he expected further provocations such as another nuclear test.

Ken Gause, a senior analyst at CNA Strategic Studies, pointed out that with the successful rocket launch, the young leader's rule got off to a good start.

"The regime seems to have achieved its goal of ending the first year of Kim Jong-un's rule on a major up note," he said.

Donald Gregg, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, called for Washington and Seoul to explore new ways to deal with North Korea.

"We need to work together to forge a new policy toward North Korea, based on serious, patient negotiations," he said. "We should not rush to a hostile reaction. It could be counter-productive to our long-range interests."



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