Nevertheless, Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul insist the launch violates a resolution passed in July 2006, in the wake of a surprise medium-range missile test, banning Pyongyang from any ballistic activity. Missiles carrying warheads and rockets carrying satellites are essentially identical.
North Korea argues that its membership of a UN treaty on the peaceful uses of outer space give it the right to launch satellites, which it says was the missile's purpose. Beijing is sympathetic to that view.
"The launch violates the UN resolution but it is different from nuclear and missile tests," says Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. "It is less sinister" than the unannounced missile test in 2006, he adds.
Japanese cabinet spokesman Takeo Kawamura did not agree. "Even if a satellite was launched, we see this as a ballistic missile test and we think this matter should be taken to the United Nations Security Council," he said on Sunday.
Sanctions unlikely to help
Toughened sanctions would almost undoubtedly prompt an angry response from Pyongyang and make an early resumption of six-party talks impossible, points out David Kang, head of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.
"The US does not want to appear to go easy on North Korea, but it does not want to fall into the trap of effectively ending denuclearization negotiations, says Prof. Kang.