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All eyes on North Korea, for good reason

Kim Jong-il's Taepodong-2 launch diverted world attention from Obama, NATO and the G20. But it carried a far greater payload.

North Koreans participate in a mass rally to celebrate the "successful launch of satellite" in Pyongyang April 8, 2009 in this picture released by the North's official news agency KCNA. (KCNA/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — By interrupting the meticulous choreography of U.S. President Barack Obama’s overseas trip with the launch of a long-range rocket, North Korea offered the young president a lesson on how rudely ungovernable, and dangerous, the world can be.

With the rest of the planet focused on the global economic crisis, Afghanistan and Michelle Obama’s wardrobe, the North Korean launch put the armed forces of five major powers — the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China — on alert, and wrestled the spotlight to northeast Asia.

“The North Koreans don’t abide neglect,” said Scott Snyder, an analyst at the Asia Foundation. “They will find a way to draw the attention of the international community.”

Though it’s said to have failed at its immediate purpose — taking a payload into space — the firing of the Taepodong-2 rocket was a step forward in North Korea’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The three-stage rocket traveled considerably further than previous prototypes.

It was a reminder to Obama of the threat posed by the secretive, nuclear-armed regime, seemingly immune to conventional diplomatic pressures, intent on selling killer technologies to other rogue states and teetering on the brink of what could be a chaotic change in leadership.

The traveling White House press corps peppered Obama’s aides with an obvious question last weekend: Was North Korea bringing on a crisis to test the mettle of a young new president?

The answer is yes, and — more chillingly — no. 

Provoking an observable U.S. response was surely an ancillary goal for North Korea, Snyder said. The regime has a history of taking provocative actions at the beginning of American presidencies.

But the launch had plenty of other benefits for North Korea. It helped Pyongyang to maintain its leverage with its patron, China, and to intimidate neighboring South Korea and Japan.