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North Korea's Missile Test Is Call for Attention

North Korea's test-firing of a stream of missiles harmlessly into the sea Wednesday appeared to be a military failure, but it achieved one important objective for Pyongyang: it got worldwide attention.

The public way the North prepared for the tests and their timing — the Fourth of July, during a launch of a U.S. space shuttle — indicated that the isolated state was eager to make itself the focus of global diplomacy and Washington's attention after months of seeing Iran take center stage with its nuclear program.

"They chose their day very interestingly," said Jonathan Pollack of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. "This was a curious coincidence with the launch of the shuttle from Cape Canaveral."

Assessing North Korean motives is always risky, but the consensus is that the isolated regime is eager to draw Washington into bilateral negotiations and figures posing a threat is a good way of achieving that.

After all, Pyongyang shocked the world by firing a long-range missile over northern Japan in 1998. Yet just two years later, leader Kim Jong Il was basking in a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

But times have changed. Not only has the administration of George W. Bush taken a harder line with Pyongyang, but Wednesday's test — in which a long-range missile apparently imploded 35 seconds after launch — was much less impressive than the 1998 display.

Washington does not want to be seen as coddling the North. The U.S. has already spurned a suggestion by North Korea that the two have direct talks, and U.S. officials have instead urged Pyongyang to rejoin six-party nuclear talks.

Those talks have been stalled since last year, however, by a North Korean boycott in protest of a U.S. crackdown on the country's alleged counterfeiting, money-laundering and other wrongdoing. The other parties are China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Michael Green, U.S. President George W. Bush's senior adviser on Asia until December and now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called for a stern response to the tests.

"Now is the time for the other parties to put pressure on North Korea, to impose consequences and to make it very clear that these kinds of provocations will only further isolate North Korea," he said.

Still, others point out that options may be limited.

The North Korea regime has braved famine, economic deprivation and diplomatic isolation without caving in before, and its No. 1 patron, China, may block tough pressure against Pyongyang.

Even with Japan and the United States pressing for a U.N. Security Council meeting early Wednesday in New York on the issue, few people expected members to take immediate harsh action.

"China is likely to oppose any imposition of sanctions on North Korea over this problem, so I think the process will ultimately be inconclusive," said Takashi Shiraishi, an East Asian affairs expert at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

It was equally unclear what the test tells the world about the state of North Korea's weapons delivery program. The fizzling of what is believed to have been a long-range Taepodong-2 suggested the North Koreans are far from perfecting technology needed to hit the United States with a warhead.

But some caution against coming to such a conclusion.

"Even if the Taepodong-2 test launch was a failure as suspected, there is the possibility that it was 'successful enough' if we think ahead to the next two years or so," said Shiraishi.

"If we don't deal with the problem of North Korea's nuclear weapons during that time, then that could be enough time for the North to enable their missile to carry a nuclear warhead and then we would have a truly serious situation," he added.

There was some speculation that the North feared that would happen, which is why the country also fired off several more reliable shorter-range missiles to provide some successes.

And, given the crafty nature of North Korean diplomacy, there is also the possibility that the Taepodong's "failure" was staged to allow Pyongyang to defy the world with the test of a long-range missile, but not to let it fly so far as to trigger a military response from the U.S.

"The fact that they went down so far away from Japan is not quite as shocking to the American and Japanese as it might have been if they had come close," Kensuke Ehata, a Tokyo-based defense analyst, told Japanese national broadcaster NHK.

Despite the wide condemnation of the missile launches, some said that the world has no choice but to engage the regime and lure it out of isolation as a way of making it less dangerous and unpredictable.

Albright, who met with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000, said the missile launches illustrated how the Bush administration needs to review its approach to North Korea. She also urged the development of anti-missile defenses.

"Although the Taepodong failed, it certainly has given the North Koreans an opportunity to learn a lot about what they have in terms of their missile technology," she told CNN.