WASHINGTON AND THE UNITED NATIONS — The United States and its allies labored Sunday to devise a concerted response to North Korea's launch of a long-range rocket, but quickly ran into divisions over how to confront the defiant regime.
The United Nations Security Council met in a hastily called session to consider official condemnation of the launch, but ended the meeting with no immediate action beyond a promise to continue to seek a common response in the coming days.
The U.S. and its allies fear that North Korea was testing its ability to deliver nuclear weapons by firing off the three-stage rocket, which flew over Japan on Sunday morning and plunged into the Pacific. President Obama and other leaders were quick to condemn the launch.
"North Korea broke the rules once again by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles," said Obama, who was awakened Sunday with word of the launch.
Obama, who is visiting Prague, Czech Republic, said the move threatened countries "near and far" and underscored "the need for action not just this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons."
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, recently returned from the Group of 20 nations' economic summit in London with Obama and other leaders, said North Korea must be held accountable for its actions.
"This is an extremely provocative act, and it cannot be dismissed," Aso said.
North Korea has insisted that the launch was designed to put a communications satellite into orbit. Within hours of the three-stage rocket lifting off from the Musudan-ri launch facility at 11:30 a.m. local time, the state-run North Korean news agency declared it a success.
"The carrier rocket and the satellite developed by our own wisdom and technology are the fruit of our struggle to enhance our nation's space science technology to a higher level," said the Korean Central News Agency.
But U.S. and South Korean defense officials and weapons experts later reported that the rocket failed to send a satellite into orbit, if that was the goal.
American officials maintain that the launch violated terms of a U.N. resolution in 2006 that imposed sanctions on the North after it tested a nuclear device. But China and Russia disputed that view, saying the resolution was ambiguous in its language.
After three hours of talks Sunday afternoon, the Security Council issued a brief statement saying members would spend the next couple of days discussing how to respond to the North Korean launch. But the 15 members could not agree on wording to characterize their joint statement.
Most members, led by the U.S. and Japanese ambassadors, wanted an immediate and robust condemnation of the launch in that initial statement. But the Chinese and Russian envoys are said to have resisted, with at least one member balking at a statement that would even express "concern" over the launch, according to a Western diplomat.
Later, Chinese Ambassador Yesui Zhang told reporters he wanted a "cautious and proportionate" response to avoid "increased tensions" and not jeopardize further nuclear negotiations with the North Koreans.
But U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said Washington's view was that "the most appropriate response to an action of this gravity would be a Security Council resolution."
The United States reportedly has floated the idea of a new resolution that would toughen the travel ban and asset freezes on officials involved in the North Korean missile program. But no draft resolutions were being circulated. Rice met briefly with the Chinese and Russian delegates late in the day to see whether they would veto any resolution, which either could do as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
Some Council members might resist sanctions that are too tough for fear they would keep North Korea from returning to the bargaining table. The regime has been involved in on-again, off-again disarmament talks with the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.
Pyongyang has already threatened to end negotiations if there was any criticism of the launch at the United Nations.
"You're dealing with a very unpredictable actor who doesn't necessarily respond well to pressure or to incentives," said a senior U.S. official traveling with Obama. "They're so isolated already. There's no clear incentive that has proven to work."
The administration wants to continue the six-party talks and, "through the process, have them [North Korea] come to understand it's in their interest" to follow the rules, said the official, who requested anonymity.
A foreign diplomat in Washington recalled that even when the United Nations, roused by North Korea's nuclear test in 2006, imposed sanctions, "the lasting effect was not so great."