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Obama warns North Korea on rocket launch

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Christophe Ena/AP

(Read caption) French President Nicolas Sarkozy (r.) and President Barack Obama shook hands during a joint press conference held in Strasbourg, France, on Friday.

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Seoul, South Korea – While President Obama warned Friday in no uncertain language against North Korea’s plan to launch a long-range missile as early as this weekend, legal experts debated whether the North would really be in violation of international law.

The answer depended on whether North Korea can demonstrate that its intention all along was to put a communications satellite into orbit, not to test the ability of the missile to deliver a nuclear warhead to a distant target, possibly the US West Coast. North Korea has said it will go through with the launch any time from early Saturday (Friday night in the US), to Tuesday evening, which will be Tuesday morning in the States.

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Mr. Obama, appearing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a joint press conference in Strasbourg, vowed to “work with all interested partners in the international community to take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that they cannot threaten the safety and stability of other countries with impunity.”

But exactly how do those words translate into action? The answer initially, as US officials have made clear, would undoubtedly be an attempt to get the UN Security Council to condemn the launch of the missile, known as Taepodong-2, even if it did carry a satellite. US officials have noted that the Taepodong-1 also carried a satellite when it flew over Japan on Aug. 31, 1998, but never managed to put it into orbit before falling into the western Pacific Ocean.

Not so fast, says the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. North Korea can claim every right to send up a satellite in conformance with the Outer Space Treaty, of which the North is a signatory. The treaty says all nations “have the right to the peaceful exploration of outer space.”

US, South Korean, and Japanese officials all view North Korea’s avowed intention of launching a satellite as a coverup for a missile test that carries grave implications for the Korean peninsula.

Daniel Pinkston, representing the International Crisis Group here, says all the monitoring equipment aboard US, Japanese, and Korean destroyers in the waters between North Korea and Japan should be able to determine almost immediately where the missile is going, at what speed – and why. If it’s on a highly upward trajectory, it’s got a satellite aboard; if it’s traveling in more or less a straight line, then the launch will basically be to test the missile’s efficacy in delivering a warhead.

He still thinks North Korea’s ultimate purpose is to get attention – and bring about diplomatic recognition. Renewed dialogue, he believes, is vital.

“If the Obama administration does not have much intention of a conversation,” he says, “then I don’t think the Obama administration could be seriously interested in normalizing relations.”

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The response to the test, Mr. Pinkston goes on, will reveal the implications of the launch of the missile/satellite. “If other parties don’t want to compromise,” he says, “they really don’t have much to lose.”