WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is drawing no "red line" for North Korea after a successful long-range rocket test, tempering the public condemnation to avoid raising tensions or possibly rewarding the reclusive communist nation with too much time in the global spotlight.
The U.S. has told the world that it won't tolerate Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons or Syria's use of chemical stockpiles on rebels. North Korea, in some ways, is a trickier case.
The U.S. wants to forcefully condemn what it believes is a "highly provocative act," and that was the first public reaction from the White House late Tuesday. But it also is mindful of the turmoil on the Korean peninsula and treading carefully, offering no threat of military action or unspecified "consequences" associated with other hot spots.
Just two years ago, the North allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship and shelled a South Korean island. Some 50 South Koreans died in the attacks that brought the peninsula to the brink of war.
North Korea already has the deterrent of a nuclear weapons arsenal. The U.S. is bound to protect next-door South Korea from any attack, but has no desire now for a military conflict.
Raising the rhetoric can even serve as a reward for seeking attention to a government that starves its own citizens while seeking to leverage any military advance it makes into much-needed aid.
"No doubt Pyongyang is pleased. It again has unsettled its leading adversaries. And it is in the news around the world," said Doug Bandow, senior fellow at the Cato Institute. "The allies should have responded with a collective yawn. After all, the plan is nothing new. The DPRK has been testing rockets and missiles for years."
The United States remains technically at war with the notoriously unpredictable North Koreans, whose opaque leadership has confounded successive American administrations. With no peace agreement, only the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War keeps the U.S. and the North from hostilities. Some 28,500 U.S. troops remain in South Korea to deter potential aggression.
Wednesday's surprising, successful launch raises the stakes, taking North Korea one step closer to being capable of lobbing nuclear bombs over the Pacific. As the North refines its technology, its next step may be conducting another nuclear test, experts warn.
The three-stage rocket is similar in design to a model capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as California. The rocket launched a satellite into space. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would study the launch.
"I think we still have to assess just exactly what happened here," Panetta told CNN in an interview Wednesday. He said part of the assessment would examine the final stage that launched the satellite "to determine, really, whether or not that did work effectively or whether it tumbled into space. I mean, that's the issue that we need to assess."
Despite its technological advances and military bluster, it's doubtful that the North intends to strike first against the U.S.
Even so, Panetta said the U.S. has the capability to prevent such a strike.