They did it again.
North Korea's latest missile launch is a "provocation, threat to international stability, and another violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions," say Western U.N. diplomats, who met behind closed doors Friday at a Security Council session to respond to Pyongyang's defiance.
Despite the brazen challenge, the Council diplomats could not immediately agree on what action to take, however, they issued a statement.
"Members of the Security Council deplored this launch," said Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the U.N. who is also serving at the Council president for April, a job held by each member on a monthly rotating basis.
"Members of the Security Council agreed to continue consultations on an appropriate response in accordance with its responsibilities given the urgency of the matter."
The Council already has passed two rounds of resolutions slapping Pyongyang with sanctions, in 2006 and 2009. Those actions were in response to North Korea launching missiles and testing two underground nuclear bombs. One missile even flew over Japan, violating its airspace. But Rice refused to say what action the Council now might take.
"I am not going to characterize the form of the response," she said. "That is the subject of early-stage discussions among Council members."
But as the representative of the United States, Rice said, "We have condemned the launch. We view it as a direct violation" of previous Council resolutions. And "we think it's important that the Council respond credibly, and we will be working in that direction."
Any chance of a third round of sanctions is off the table, diplomats say, because of China's continued protection of its neighbor. For years, Beijing blocked attempts to bring the North Korean issue to the full Council, until the brazen missile and nuclear tests six years ago made it impossible for China's obstruction to continue.
Now China likely will resist any move for a third resolution, with its ambassador saying that Council members must show "restraint." For that reason, only Friday's strongly worded statement is expected for now -- providing, some say, a meaningless slap on the wrist for the North Koreans.
"China has typically provided as much political cover as it could for North Korea and looks poised to do so again," former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told Fox News. "Russia will likely stay close to China's position on North Korea, as they stay close together on Iran. The most likely result is words from the Security Council, not action, which is hardly the right lesson for North Korea."
U.N. diplomats also are worried, considering the failure of the latest missile test, that any harsh response could provoke the North Koreans into conducting a third nuclear test. It is thought that the first two involved plutonium weapons, while the next step could be a bomb made from enriched uranium.
The missile launch also has prompted the Obama administration to cancel planned food aid, an exchange that was agreed on in February with the stipulation that the North Korean regime would not conduct any missile tests. The regime has a long history of broken agreements with Washington, having double-crossed the Clinton administration by illegally continuing nuclear and missile development programs while Washington provided fuel and food aid in the '90s.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also called the North Koreans' missile launch "deplorable." Ban has had extensive experience with the hermit kingdom. Before he was elected secretary general in 2006, he had been South Korea's foreign minister.
But as for Security Council action, that is far from certain.
"We will let you know when we have more to say," said Rice, who then turned from the microphone and walked away.
Follow Eric Shawn on Twitter: @EricShawnTV