North Korea is once again creating an international crisis with a plan to launch a rocket and is once again thumbing its nose at a world community wondering what to do if the rogue communist state goes ahead with the liftoff. The prospect of UN sanctions? As the communist government and other renegade states have discovered over the years, there are always ways around those _ a recent international report says the ones imposed against the North in 2006 after it conducted a nuclear test have had little effect.
Military action? Not wise against an unpredictable country that has threatened to use nuclear weapons. China, its closest ally and neighbour, is eager to maintain the North as a buffer with democratic South Korea and is urging calm by all parties to avoid raising tensions any higher.
So if last-minute pleas fail and the North does send a multistage, long-range rocket off a launch pad on its northeast coast, the question is what the rest of the world can and will do about it.
The North says it is putting a satellite into orbit. The US, South Korea and Japan think the communist country is really testing long-range missile technology _ a move they have warned would violate a UN Security Council resolution banning the North from ballistic activity.
With South Korea, Japan and the US leading the way, plans already are afoot to call an emergency Security Council meeting. There is talk of strong punishment and hope for a united response. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has promised Security Council "consequences" if the North launches.
But China has veto power on the council and has watered down sanctions in the past. While Russia, which also has veto power, seems to be inching closer to the US on the issue in a goodwill move, Moscow also is likely to prefer a mild rebuke _ it doesn't have much influence on its former ally, but it has been reluctant to criticize Pyongyang in the past, fearing it could lose whatever small leverage it has.
Beijing isn't likely to support tougher action because it doesn't believe such tactics have much effect on Pyongyang, according to Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at People's University in Beijing.
Beijing may be further constrained by a desire to avoid spoiling the atmosphere for commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the communist neighbors, Shi said.
"China's attitude is very cautious. It has learned from past experience that tough measures will never work," Shi said. China worries that such measures have damaged its relations with North Korea and could cost China "crucial influence with Pyongyang at even more sensitive moments.
"So my personal opinion is that China would very possibly block any punishment against North Korea," Shi said.
There are also ambiguities that North Korea appears to be exploiting by saying it has the right to the peaceful use of space. The Security Council resolution bans ballistic missiles for military use, and some suggest it would be tough to come down hard if there is any sign that a satellite really is the payload, even if the technology could also be used to launch a nuclear warhead. The ambiguity means that any decision on how to respond will be political, said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank that provides detailed analysis about North Korea.
"It's pretty clear already: I think the Chinese and the Russians, but particularly the Chinese, are not going to support additional sanctions," he told reporters on Friday. "It really depends upon the views of the permanent five members of the Security Council. And if China or Russia do not support this, then nothing's gonna happen."
North Korea has dealt with sanctions already. The ones imposed after it conducted an underground nuclear test in 2006 appear to have had little effect, largely because implementation was left up to individual countries, according to a study by Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute of International Economics.
"A major problem appears to be that some of the permanent members of the Security Council, particularly China, displayed reluctance to fully embrace and implement sanctions," Noland wrote. "In retrospect, North Korea may have calculated quite correctly that the direct penalties for establishing itself as a nuclear power would be modest, or, alternatively, put such a high value on demonstrating its nuclear capability that it outweighed the downside risks, however large. If sanctions are to deter behavior in the future, they will have to be more enthusiastically implemented," Noland said.
In fact, the North could actually stand to benefit from the launch. It has a history of using brinksmanship to wring aid and concessions from the West. In addition, a successful launch could help the poverty-wracked country sell missiles and parts to other countries.
Along with more aid, Pyongyang wants to have direct talks with the United States instead of going through the six-nation process that has been aimed at getting it to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Complicating things are North Korea's arrests of two US journalists along its border with China. With a threat to put them on trial, where they could face years in a labor camp, Pyongyang likely sees them as bargaining chips.
Michael Green, former President George W Bush's former Asia adviser, said in an interview "given the Obama administration's desire to have a positive overture, and the fact that they have these two American hostages ... they may calculate that threatening to cancel diplomacy and the six-party talks may deter the administration from imposing consequences."