WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea's successful rocket launch poses a fresh quandary for the United States, underscoring how its "shame and sanction" approach to Pyongyang has failed to stop the country's dangerous advances in both nuclear and missile technology, analysts and officials said on Wednesday.
The Obama administration has condemned Wednesday's launch as a "highly provocative act" for which there would be "consequences" and has began working at the U.N. Security Council on steps which could broaden existing sanctions on North Korea - already the most isolated country in the world.
Officials say the immediate U.S. task is to try to win stronger support from China - North Korea's lone major ally - for enforcing existing sanctions and potentially agreeing to new steps such as adding more entities to the U.N. blacklist, banning travel and freezing assets of individual North Korean officials, and tightening of a cargo-inspection regime.
But beyond that, U.S. policy options look thin in the face of fresh evidence that North Korea is on its way toward marrying its nuclear program to a missile capable of hitting the U.S. West Coast.
"There has been an unspoken tendency in the United States to discount these tests as yet another foolish attempt by the technologically backward and bizarre country. This is no longer acceptable," Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in an analysis following the launch.
"The question is, will the United States do something else given the new strategic threat posed by the North, or will we wait for them to cross the next threshold to becoming a full-fledged nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland?"
U.S. officials say their path has been complicated by continued resistance from Beijing, which is already embroiled in maritime territorial disputes with U.S. allies and wary of a U.S. strategy of rebalancing its military forces from the Middle East and South Asia toward the Asia-Pacific.
"Administrations of both parties have worked at this problem for decades. No one has yet found a solution that will stick, and that's largely because all of the major players have never agreed to line up together," one senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials stress that the Obama administration has repeatedly sought to set relations with Pyongyang on a more positive track, culminating in a framework agreement early this year that would have North Korea suspend major elements of its weapons programs in return for U.S. food aid.
That deal quickly collapsed as North Korea defied international pressure and pushed ahead with an earlier rocket launch in April. That test failed when the rocket broke apart in mid-flight.
The United States and its allies say such launches are tantamount to a test of ballistic missile technology forbidden by U.N. Security Council resolutions. North Korea says they are part of a civilian space program.
Analysts say North Korea still has a long way to go before it becomes a direct threat to the United States. But with key U.S. allies including Japan and South Korea increasingly anxious, pressure is likely to build on Washington to develop some new strategies.
"The ability to boost a rocket and keep it afloat for just over nine minutes has very little to do with hitting Seattle, but you are much more nervous if you are Japan or the Philippines," said George Lopez, a North Korea analyst at the University of Notre Dame.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials were consulting with major U.S. Asian allies, as well as with China, on the next steps. But she indicated there was little immediate appetite for new overtures to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who took power last year following the death of his father.
"This is taking them in the wrong direction," Nuland said. "He can spend his time and his money shooting off missiles, or he can feed his people. But he can't have both."
Wednesday's launch prompted fresh calls in the U.S. Congress for more pressure on China to rein in its belligerent and impoverished ally, along with demands for a fresh look at missile defense preparations of the United States and its allies.
"This should be cause for a change in policy and attitude in dealings with North Korea. And the first thing I think we have to do is have a serious bilateral discussion with China," Rep. Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.
Early signs have not been encouraging. In a U.N. Security Council debate on possible new sanctions on Wednesday, one diplomat said U.S. and Chinese representatives had a "spirited discussion" on the best way forward.
"The word 'ridiculous' was used more than once," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Ultimately, analysts say that Washington may yet find a way to edge back into multilateral "six-party" disarmament talks which broke down in 2008. Despite previous setbacks and failures, little else appears likely to work, they said.
"North Korea is showing with this test that the shame and sanction strategy is not working," said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, a disarmament advocacy group.
"It is gradually improving its missile and nuclear weapons capability, and it does not seem prudent or practical to follow this test with the same tired, ineffective approach."
Reporting by Andrew Quinn, Tabassum Zakaria, Paul Eckert, Matt Spetalnick and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Warren Strobel and David Brunnstrom