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(News Focus) Seoul meeting a rehearsal for tougher diplomacy on N. Korea's rocket launch
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, March 26 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is absent. But it seems to be everywhere.

   As global leaders assemble in Seoul for a biennial summit on nuclear security, the North's planned rocket launch is the talk of the town.

   North Korea's nuclear program is not on the formal agenda at the Nuclear Security Summit. The meeting is aimed at pooling ideas on securing loose fissile materials and blocking nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists.

   Pyongyang spurned Seoul's offer to join the two-day summit as an observer. It instead announced a plan to shoot a long-range rocket in mid-April, a week before the opening of the gathering, the largest diplomatic event in South Korea.

   The South's capital, just 25 miles away from the border with North Korea, has apparently served as a stage for regional powers to discuss ways to persuade the communist regime to drop the launch plan.

   After a series of bilateral talks on the sidelines, leaders expressed "serious concerns" over the move in front of television cameras. They issued joint calls for the North to rethink it.

   U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, "agreed to coordinate closely in responding to this potential provocation," Ben Rhodes, Obama's key adviser on national security, said in the wake of their talks on Monday.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao take their seat for talks in Seoul on March 26.

In a separate summit, Hu told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that Beijing is trying to press Pyongyang to call off the rocket scheme.

   Those are the relatively easy parts, however,
Such joint messages belie really tough things to come should the North, equipped with weapons-grade plutonium, go ahead with the launch.

   It would prompt the U.S. to declare the break of a Feb. 29 deal, in which the North would receive massive food aid in return for a halt to nuclear and missile activities.

   The U.S. and allies would also likely bring the matter to the U.N. Security Council, rekindling a high-profile diplomatic tug-of-war once again with two other members of the council -- China and Russia.

   The two of the North's last remaining allies have a track record of staving off or watering down U.N. moves to strongly punish the North for its missile or nuclear tests.

   In that sense, experts say, the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit has set the stage for a rehearsal of post-launch diplomatic battles.

   "Ironically, North Korea's decision to announce its plans a month in advance of the actual launch is enabling face to face discussions in Seoul among the leaders of the five states involved in nuclear diplomacy with the DPRK (North Korea)," said Jonathan Pollack, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution.

   At issue again will be how to characterize the North's rocket.

   Chances are high that Beijing will back Pyongyang's claim that it is meant to carry a satellite into orbit just like in 2009.

   They both argue satellite launches are a sovereign right of a nation.

   The U.S. regards it as a disguised attempt to test an intercontinental ballistic missile. South Korea made clear it would be a severe provocation.

   "For the United States, continued North Korean long-range missile testing highlights the priority concern of North Korean vertical proliferation and underscores the concern expressed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in December 2010 that North Korea's development of a long-range missile capability could become a direct threat to the United States," said Scott Snyder, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.

   China is unlikely to endorse any measure aimed at pushing the North to the brink of collapse, as it seeks to maintain its influence on the peninsula and prevent an influx of economic refugees.

   The outgoing Russian leader, Dmitry Medvedev, was quoted as saying in his one-on-one meeting with the U.S. president that the North's planned missile launch would be a violation of existing U.N. resolutions.

   As always, the devil is in the details.

   Moscow, hoping to restore its clout in international affairs, is expected to raise its voice if a diplomatic stand-off on the North occurs at the U.N. Security Council.

   Another dilemma for the U.S. is that it has few tools to turn the screws on Pyongyang, already under comprehensive sanctions.