North Korea appears determined to launch a rocket this week, despite the prospect of losing nearly 250,000 tons of U.S. food aid, receiving new U.N. sanctions and embarrassing its only major ally, China.
With so much at stake, the secretive communist nation's actions beg the question: What do North Korean leaders hope to gain by going through with the launch?
"They decided to drive tensions higher and manufacture a crisis," says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar at Kookmin University in Seoul.
North Korea has said the launch, which could occur as early as Thursday, will put a weather-and-research satellite into orbit. Engineers on Wednesday fueled the three-stage rocket on its launch pad at Dongchang-ri.
U.S. officials, however, have said they suspect the launch is a cover for North Korea to test a long-range ballistic missile that, with military modifications, could be capable of hitting areas of the United States, among other nations.
Japan and South Korea have said the launch will breach U.N. Security Council resolutions, which ban North Korea from work on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology.
The United States currently chairs the Security Council, and officials have said they expect the panel to take up the matter if the launch goes ahead. New, tougher sanctions could be imposed.
For its own part, the United States has said it will not go forward with a food aid deal with North Korea that was unveiled at the end of February.
Under the deal, North Korea would have received 240,000 tons of food in exchange for suspending nuclear activities at its Yongbyon complex and long-range missile tests.
Within three weeks of the agreement, North Korean officials notified international aviation authorities about the planned rocket launch, which they have said is allowed under a U.N. treaty guaranteeing all nations the right to the peaceful exploration of space.
North Korean leaders were seeking "to create conditions when they can demand more concessions from the United States and international community" in exchange for halting, but not reversing, their work on missiles and nuclear weapons, said Mr. Lankov.
He said the North Koreans' message is clear: "We are here, we are seriously dangerous, we are not influenced by your sanctions ... by the way, we do not give a damn about the 240,000 tons of food you just promised."
Last week, South Korean officials said the North also is readying to test a nuclear weapon.
After North Korea's last rocket launch in 2009, the totalitarian regime responded to international criticism with a nuclear test within a month.
Mr. Lankov said history is "absolutely" repeating itself, as the regime seeks to demonstrate its nuclear and ballistic potency in the face of its near-total international isolation.
But a congressional staffer who follows the issue closely said there could be "unintended consequences" for the North this time because the launch will likely embarrass its biggest trading partner, China.
"The big loser in this is China," said the staffer, who is not authorized to speak to the media. "They have been asking the international community to be patient with North Korea for a long time."
The staffer said there will be "immense global pressure on China" to accept another round of sanctions on North Korea if the launch occurs. "There will be a number of countries with a lot of very tough questions for China."
Part of the problem is that the United States and its allies are "relatively blind" on North Korean decision-making, the staffer said. "We're not privy to the push-and-pull of activities inside the regime, which is going on at this stage, not just daily but hour-by-hour."
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