BEIJING -- A North Korean test launch of a missile potentially able to reach the United States would catapult the Korean crisis back into the spotlight and leave the Bush administration with little leverage with which to respond, analysts say.
As a flurry of reports yesterday suggested that Pyongyang had finished fueling a missile and could be on the verge of a launch, the United States and Japan implored North Korea not to conduct its first flight test in eight years.
A launch would effectively end three years of negotiations, analysts say, and mark the lowest point for U.S.-North Korean relations since missile talks began.
"North Korea has imposed a moratorium on launching missiles," said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "We hope it will continue that moratorium" and abide by commitments last year to dismantle nuclear arms and end further development.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned yesterday that "it would be a very serious matter and indeed a provocative act" if North Korea tested a missile.
She said the United States is working closely with allies but did not say what might be done if North Korea tested the missile.
While the North's rationale might be hard to grasp in Washington, analysts say North Korean leader Kim Jong Il could be angling for specific benefits: A high-profile missile test could deliver a political boost at home, divide world powers over the appropriate reaction and renew attention from a Bush administration that has been consumed with Iraq and Iran.
"The pattern with North Korea is that they don't like to be ignored, and right now they think the U.S. is not taking them seriously enough," said Peter Beck, a Seoul-based analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Kim must also play to his domestic audience, and a launch would rally military and civilian support.
"It makes sense domestically," said Daniel Pinkston of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.
Pyongyang has grown increasingly frustrated in the seven months since negotiators from the United States, China and other nations in the six-party talks last met. North Korea has refused to return to the bargaining table as long as the United States is putting new financial pressure on the regime, by accusing powerful companies of money laundering and counterfeiting of U.S. currency.
Pyongyang has watched Washington's focus shift to Iran, culminating this month when the White House offered to convene direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program, something North Korea has sought for years. The day after the United States made its offer to Iran, North Korea issued an invitation for direct talks with Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator on the North's nuclear weapons program, but Washington rejected the offer.
A test would be the North's first major launch since 1998, when it sent a Taepodong-1 missile over Japanese territory. Pyongyang later adopted a self-imposed test moratorium but continued its development of a nuclear weapons program. It is unknown whether the nuclear devices that North Korea claims to have are small and light enough to be carried by a missile.
Likewise, little is known about what North Korea might be doing. News reports in the United States, South Korea and Japan have cited satellite images and unnamed officials as suggesting that the North has erected and fueled a 116-foot-long ballistic missile, the Taepodong-2. Some commentators say that technical demands would require a fully fueled missile to be fired within a day or two; others say it could wait up to a month.
Either way, Washington and its allies have little recourse. U.S. and Japanese diplomats warned yesterday that, in the event of a launch, they might refer North Korea to the United Nations Security Council and seek economic sanctions. Yet, analysts say that is unlikely to succeed.
North Korea could describe the test as a satellite launch, making it hard for countries to condemn it. The United States again would likely have difficulty persuading China and Russia to support sanctions.
Experts say a launch could be an effort to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea and China, which frown on Washington's efforts to confront North Korea.
Speaking of a potential North Korean launch, Chinese foreign affairs analyst Ren Xiao said, "China would not like that kind of development," but he saw little chance that Beijing would support sanctions.
"China does not like to be pressured, and China does not like to put pressure on anybody," he said.
Evan Osnos writes for the Chicago Tribune.