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.
Despite its technological advances and military bluster, it's doubtful that the North intends to strike first against the U.S.
North Korea has spent decades threatening but avoiding a direct confrontation with the tens of thousands of American forces in South Korea and Japan. The government has remained firmly in power despite a drought-plagued agricultural sector that leaves many North Koreans in search of food and a crumbling economy that affords few any chance of social betterment.
"It is regrettable that the leadership in Pyongyang chose to take this course in flagrant violation of its international obligations," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. He said the U.S. would try to further isolate North Korea in response.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the launch "highly provocative and a threat to regional security." It will only further impoverish North Koreans, she said.
Neither Carney nor Nuland elaborated on possible consequences. The White House's initial statement referred only to potential action at the U.N. Security Council, which condemned North Korea on Wednesday and said it would urgently consider "an appropriate response." The threat of sanctions is unclear; China, North Korea's benefactor, holds veto power.