WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. diplomats on the North Korea beat must have the same goal as Goldilocks -- not too hot and not too cold.
Activists in Seoul take the hot approach against the Korean rocket launch in a protest Friday.
Too much heat from Washington would just heighten the propaganda payoff for Kim Jong Il, who already has the whole world watching. A too-cool, laid-back approach risks offending the Japanese, who see themselves in the probable path of the rocket.
But the United States has little or no influence on whether Kim Jong Il sends the Taepodong-2 aloft. And when the smoke clears -- whether the rocket fizzles or soars -- the United States wants more than anything else to lure North Korea back to the negotiating table.
So the just-right diplomatic approach demands strong talk but few specifics. U.S. diplomats want to avoid any rift that can't be smoothed over in a return to the so-called six-party talks.
Those lengthy, extremely difficult negotiations over North Korea's dismantling of its nuclear weapons program bogged down in the final months of the Bush administration, when North Korea failed to provide details of what nuclear materials it actually has.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to hit the right tone when she talked about the North Korea missile in Europe this week and promised unspecified repercussions.
"It is an unfortunate and continuing example of provocation by the North Koreans," Clinton said. But she made no mention of any kind of military response.
"Their missile launch violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, and there will be consequences certainly in the United Nations Security Council if they proceed with the launch," Clinton said at a news conference after the Afghanistan conference in the Netherlands.
Her spokesman took the same stance in Washington later in the week.
"There's been a lot of diplomatic activity," Robert Wood said, but offered few details. He talked about the public comings and goings at the State Department last week with officials of both Japan and South Korea.
The Japanese are poised to call an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council -- if the missile flies. The United States is staying cool on that, too.
"Should that launch take place, there will be increased diplomatic activity to try to figure out what we can do to prevent that type of thing from happening again," Wood said. "But again, it hasn't happened yet, so let's wait and see."
Experts on the sidelines say the United States may have talked too much last week about possibly shooting down the missile. That too-hot approach had the unintended result of just cranking up the Kim Jong Il bluster another couple of notches.
"If the only risk is to just some halibut out in the sea, then let it fly," said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Klingner has watched North Korea for the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. "It is clear that the U.S. has said to North Korea 'Don't do it.' If it's threatening then take it out. If it isn't, then let it fly," Klinger said.
The United States must keep its eye on the goal, Klingner told CNN in a telephone interview. "We should always be willing to come back to negotiation."
U.S. State Department officials privately admit they have no influence over North Korea. Kim Jong Il is willing to starve his people, they said, leave them shivering and poor, and the threat of new sanctions won't dissuade him from pushing forward with his missile program... and tweaking the West in the process.
Wood admitted that the missile has generated a bad case of diplomatic jitters.
"The situation right now in the region is very tense, everyone is on edge and we want to try to do what we can to prevent this launch from happening," Wood said. "And we are using every possible avenue that we have diplomatically to do that."
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