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.