North Korea has been working toward a long-range ballistic missile capability for years, but its program has suffered setbacks and delays. Its Taepo Dong-2 test in April of this year failed shortly after launch, and in a 2009 test a missile traveled approximately 3,800 kilometers but did not lift its payload into orbit.
The latest missile test, however, does not by itself immediately affect the military balance in the region. A credible threat of a North Korean nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile is still years away.
Although it has conducted two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, it is unlikely that North Korea has developed a warhead small enough for delivery by its missiles, and it has not yet flight-tested a re-entry vehicle to carry such a warhead. Additionally, its liquid-fueled missiles would have to be deployed at stationary sites, making them vulnerable to pre-emptive attack.
As Dave Montague, the former president of the missile systems division at Lockheed Martin Missile and Space, said at a Sept. 2012 press briefing, the Taepo Dong-2 is unlikely to threaten the United States because "it can't carry enough payload to be of any significant threat. It's a -- it's a baby satellite launcher, and not a very good one at that."
As North Korea specialist Leon Sigal has written, the frustrating history of U.S. efforts to deal with North Korea over the past quarter century has shown that "the only thing worse than negotiating with North Korea is not negotiating with North Korea."
In early 2009, instead of resuming talks with North Korea, the Obama administration sustained the suspension of promised energy aid by South Korea -- aid the Bush administration had belatedly endorsed only weeks earlier. North Korea responded by stopping work to disable its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, and it conducted its second nuclear test and another missile test. International condemnation followed, but there were no talks with North Korea until Dec. 2010, by which time it had extracted plutonium from its remaining spent fuel rods at Yongbyon.
Through 2010, as tensions between South Korea and North Korea worsened, the Obama administration rebuffed North Korean overtures to resume talks until Pyongyang took "concrete actions" consistent with its earlier disarmament pledges and resolved the dispute over the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan.
It was not until July 2011 that the second high-level meeting of U.S. and North Korean envoys finally took place. Amb. Stephen Bosworth said the United States would support further Six-Party Talks if North Korea committed itself to being a constructive partner in the negotiation process.
While the White House waited for North Korea, North Korea was improving its uranium-enrichment capabilities and its leadership transition was in full swing. In October 2011, Bosworth met with his North Korean counterpart, renewing hopes that the Six-Party talks might soon resume. But less than a month later, Kim Jong Il died and more time was lost.