- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

SEOUL | North Korea's weekend rocket launch gives the communist country another bargaining chip in negotiations over dismantling its nuclear weapons program, even if the flight wasn't completely successful, analysts said Monday.

Even with suspected problems in separating the second and third stages, the rocket flew twice as far as any previous missile the North has launched. That range falls far short of U.S. territory, but neighbors are concerned by the expanded reach of a regime that claims to have atomic bombs.

President Obama and other world leaders called Sunday's launch a provocation that cannot go unanswered, but the U.N. Security Council was so divided that it didn't even issue a preliminary statement of condemnation.

Diplomats privy to continuing talks in New York said China, Russia, Libya and Vietnam voiced concerns about further alienating and destabilizing North Korea. China, the North's closest ally, and Russia hold veto power as permanent members of the council and could water down any response.

Analysts said Security Council sanctions imposed after the North's underground nuclear test explosion in 2006, which barred Pyongyang from working on ballistic missiles, appeared to have had little effect because some countries showed no inclination to impose them.

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency claimed again Monday that the rocket put an experimental communications satellite into orbit, while the United States and others suspected that the test was a cover for improving technology for a long-range military missile.

U.S. and South Korean officials said the entire rocket, including whatever payload it carried, ended up in the ocean. South Korea said the second stage splashed down about 1,900 miles from the launch site.

That is double the distance a North Korean rocket managed in 1998 and far better than a 2006 launch of a missile that fizzled 42 seconds after liftoff. Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Mongolia and parts of China are now within range, but Anchorage, Alaska, is about 3,500 miles from the launch site.

Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the apparent failure of the rocket's third stage to separate properly from the second stage raised questions about the reliability of the technology.

“They're still a long ways off” from being able to successfully target and strike the United States, he said. It also is unclear whether the North has been able to miniaturize its warheads enough to load onto a rocket, he said.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a former U.S. undersecretary of state in charge of the North Korean nuclear dossier, said the launch was still cause for concern.

“This is far from a failure. Japan is now clearly in range, and unless you're willing to kiss Japan goodbye, you have to be worried by this test,” he told the Associated Press.

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