The United States and its Asian allies began an effort on Wednesday to impose additional sanctions on North Korea after its largely successful rocket launching, but this time Washington added a warning to China: Failure to rein in Kim Jong-un, the North’s new leader, will result in an even greater American military presence in the Pacific.
The Chinese government, which sent a delegation to Pyongyang last month to warn against the missile test, said it “regrets” the launching, which put a 200-pound earth surveillance satellite into orbit.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said that North Korea’s right to a peaceful space program was subject to “limitations” by United Nations Security Council resolutions. But he declined to say whether North Korea had failed to live up to those obligations, which include a prohibition on launchings like the one on Wednesday morning that could be used to advance missile technology.
In fact, after a preliminary meeting of the Security Council members in New York, it was far from clear how far the Chinese are willing to go in further punishing an ally they once called as close as “lips and teeth.” Beijing’s biggest fear has always been destabilizing North Korea, and setting off a collapse that could put South Korean forces, and perhaps their American allies, on China’s border.
But the essence of the American strategy, as described Wednesday by administration officials, was to force the Chinese into an uncomfortable choice.
“The kinds of things we would do to enhance the region’s security against a North Korean nuclear missile capability,” one senior administration official said in an interview, “are indistinguishable from the things the Chinese would view as a containment strategy” aimed at Beijing.
They would include increased patrols in waters the Chinese are trying to claim as part of their exclusive zone, along with military exercises with allies in the region. “It’s the right approach, but whether it works is another matter,” said Christopher R. Hill, who was the chief negotiator with North Korea during President George W. Bush’s second term, and is now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, on Wednesday. “The approach of thickening up the antimissile effort is something that would get China’s attention.”
Many of those efforts are planned anyway as part of President Obama’s “rebalancing” strategy to ensure a continued American presence in Asia. The president has repeatedly said he has neither the desire nor the ability to contain China’s rise, but the rebalancing is clearly intended to keep the Chinese from nudging the United States out of the region.
Already, the Chinese believe that America’s antimissile efforts from Alaska to the Pacific are designed to counter their own nuclear arsenal.
Administration officials said that while the launching was successful — and advanced the North’s missile program — it was hardly a threat to the United States, despite a warning by Robert M. Gates in 2011, when he was secretary of defense, that the North would have a missile capable of reaching the United States by 2016.
“I am not disparaging this demonstration of 1950s Sputnik-quality technology,” the administration official said, referring to the Soviet satellite that prompted the space race during the cold war. He then went on to disparage it, noting that Mr. Kim “is in the family business, like his daddy before him, and it’s a form of extortion.”
South Korean officials sounded similar themes, saying that the North’s effort was to extract a higher price — in aid, investment and diplomatic concessions — for restraining future launchings or nuclear tests.
Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a private group in Washington, called the North Korean satellite launching “a fundamental breakthrough” that showed the main elements of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
“This is a resounding achievement,” he said Wednesday in a statement. He called the remaining technical steps that North Korea must take in ICBM development “much easier” than the satellite launching.
Scientific experts who examined the flight said that North Korea appeared to have solved a number of problems that caused previous efforts to blow up, but they sounded less impressed.
“It’s an important technical advance, but nothing to be horribly alarmed about” in terms of military capabilities, said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks global rocket launchings and space activity.
The North Korean satellite, he said, was orbiting a little higher than the International Space Station, reaching about 360 miles. He called the orbit’s accuracy “pretty good” for a first launching.
North Korea is the 10th nation to join the global space club by launching a satellite. The craft, said to be about the size of a washing machine, is reportedly designed for observing the earth. To make an intercontinental ballistic missile that can carry nuclear arms, scientists say, the North must master the difficult art of miniaturizing nuclear warheads and making protective re-entry capsules for the weapons that can survive the fiery plunge back to earth.
“A space launch only has to go up,” noted an analysis by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute in California.
In September, a panel of top scientists and military experts working for the National Research Council cast doubt on the claim that the space launcher itself could pose a danger to the United States. The committee, in a report on antimissile strategies for the nation, judged a military threat unlikely.
L. David Montague, the panel’s co-chairman and a retired president of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space, told reporters that North Korea’s rocket “can’t carry enough payload to be of any significant threat.” He called it “a baby satellite launcher — and not a very good one at that.”
Scientists say the North Koreans, to make an intercontinental ballistic missile, need to focus especially on engine reliability after suffering 14 years of back-to-back, long-range rocket failures that preceded Wednesday’s success. The flops occurred in 1998, 2006, 2009 and last April.