WASHINGTON (AP) — North Korea's planned long-range rocket launch threatens to wreck its recent food-for-nuclear concessions deal with the United States and dim hopes for better relations under new leader Kim Jong Un.
The North's announcement Friday marked a sharp and sudden turn 17 days after the two countries offered unexpected signs of optimism that three years of tensions were easing. Such a launch would violate a U.N. ban.
"It's a real slap in the face," said Victor Cha, a White House director for Asia policy under President George W. Bush. "It undercuts a lot of theories that the young leadership might be different. If anything, it shows that it's very much the same as before, only more unpredictable."
It is an embarrassment in an election year for President Barack Obama, who has been labeled by Republican presidential candidates as naive in his foreign policy. Republican lawmakers have accused his administration of "appeasing" North Korea by offering 240,000 tons of food in exchange for a freeze on nuclear activities and a freeze on nuclear and long-range missile tests.
If North Korea carries out the launch, it will be hard to keep alive the accord announced Feb. 29.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said a satellite launch would be a "deal-breaker" and indicated that the United States would be unlikely to send the food.
A launch in violation of the North's commitments, she said, would undermine confidence that the North would allow proper monitoring of the distribution of the aid.
The development shows the pitfalls of negotiating with a secretive government, which views its nuclear program as a deterrent against invasion. The United States retains 28,000 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War. The two Koreas remain in a state of war because the war ended without a peace treaty.
Previous U.S. efforts over the past two decades to persuade North Korea to disarm have ended in disappointment. Even before Friday's announcement, a group of five Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accusing the administration of accepting the North's "hollow commitments."
North Korea says the rocket launch would be for peaceful means. But the same kind of technology is used for ballistic missiles, which could eventually provide a delivery system for a nuclear weapon if the North should become able to miniaturize one for use on a warhead.
The North Koreans "are putting the Obama administration in a very, very difficult position," said Evans Revere, a former State Department official for East Asia. "The administration would have little choice but to react in a firm way to this."
The United States could refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council. The last time North Korea conducted such a rocket launch — it described an April 2009 launch as a bid to send a communications satellite into space — the council condemned it.
Whether permanent council members Russia and China, the North's closest ally, would support such a step this time remains unclear. All parties are aware of what can happen if the North feels cornered. Soon after the 2009 launch, the North conducted a nuclear test.
For now, the U.S. says it is consulting with the other parties in suspended six-nation disarmament talks to encourage the North not to go ahead with the launch. The North says it plans to conduct the launch between April 12-16, in commemoration of the centennial of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung, the new leader's grandfather.
That the North is prepared to take that step, risking international censure and spoiling its diplomatic outreach to Washington, underscores the importance of the centennial, as the untested Kim Jong Un seeks to consolidate his power. It also would fuel speculation over the internal dynamics in the new government and whether it has competing policy aims.
An international nuclear summit March 26-27 in South Korea, to be attended by Obama, will provide a high-profile opportunity to crank up diplomatic pressure on the North over its plans.
"The U.S. will probably really lean on the Chinese," said Jonathan Pollack, an expert on North Korea's nuclear program at the Brookings Institution think tank. He said he expected the message to China to be: "You remember what happened last time they tried to launch a satellite?"
EDITOR'S NOTE — Matthew Pennington covers U.S.-Asian affairs for The Associated Press in Washington.