North Korea is proceeding with plans to test a long-range rocket this month in defiance of international condemnation that included Japanese warnings to shoot it down if necessary.
The totalitarian state placed the first stage of the rocket on a launchpad on the northwestern coast, Yonhap News reported, citing an unidentified South Korean official. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called for “close cooperation” with the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia to push the regime of leader Kim Jong Un to abandon its plan.
“We strongly urge North Korea to exercise self- restraint,” Noda said today in a group interview with reporters in Tokyo. Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto said Dec. 1 the government will “take all necessary actions” to protect Japan and ordered the deployment of its missile intercept system.
North Korea said it will fire the rocket between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22 to put a satellite into space, the same explanation given for an April launch that exploded shortly after liftoff. The test, to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Kim’s father, former dictator Kim Jong Il, may coincide with South Korea’s presidential election on Dec. 19.
North Korea “is trying to make up for the failure of the April rocket launch and thereby solidify new leader Kim Jong Un’s rule,” said Baek Seung Joo, an analyst at Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
South Korea “sternly” warned its neighbor against the plan, saying the firing would bring a “forceful response” from the world. “North Koreans must recognize the grim fact that their futile campaigns only aggravate the feelings of South Koreans toward the North,” South Korean President Lee Myung Bak told Yonhap yesterday.
The communist state will launch a polar-orbiting earth observation satellite atop an Unha-3 rocket, the official Korean Central News Agency said. The planned liftoff, from the Sohae Space Center about 130 kilometers (80 miles) northwest of the capital, Pyongyang, may complicate international efforts to engage North Korea. The botched launch in April cost the impoverished country a food-aid deal with the U.S.
China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, expressed concern over the situation and called for calm.
“We hope the relevant parties will exercise calmness and not take actions that will escalate the situation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing today.
A “safe flight path” has been chosen so that potential debris won’t affect neighboring countries, KCNA said. North Korea will fully comply with relevant international regulations regarding satellite launches, it said.
Japan’s Nippon TV reported, citing an unidentified person, that North Korea is also preparing a second rocket at a military facility outside of Pyongyang as a possible backup.
North Korea is developing missiles that may be able to reach North America and carry warheads weighing as much as 1,000 kilograms, according to U.S. and South Korean estimates. The U.S. has previously called North Korea’s satellite plans a cover for testing long-range ballistic missiles.
The rocket is likely to be launched on Dec. 17 when the regime marks the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, Baek said. South Korea’s election two days later is also a factor in the timing, he said.
South Korea’s military is “closely monitoring” North Korea’s launch preparations, Defense Ministry spokesman Shin Won Sik said yesterday by phone. No unusual troop movements have been spotted in the North, and South Korean alert levels remain unchanged, he said.
The U.S. and U.K. warned against the launch.
“The United Nation Security Council made clear in April that any attempts by North Korea to launch a satellite using ballistic missile technology would be a serious violation,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said in an e-mailed statement. “We therefore call on North Korean authorities to abandon this plan. Failure to do so must lead to a further response by the international community, and will damage the prospects for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said a rocket test would be “highly provocative” and “only further isolate and impoverish North Korea.”
South Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator Kim Sung Nam will travel to Washington to discuss the situation with Glyn Davies, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The U.S. agreed in October to allow South Korea to extend the range of its missiles to 800 kilometers (497 miles) against possible nuclear and missile attacks from the North. North Korea’s arsenal includes Scud, Rodong and Musudan missiles. The Musudan has a range of more than 3,000 kilometers and can carry a 650 kilogram warhead, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
Kim’s regime is also developing its Taepodong-2 missile, which may have a range of 6,700 kilometers and be able to carry a warhead weighing as much as 1,000 kilograms, according to U.S. and South Korean estimates.
The announcement of the planned launch came just days after South Korea canceled the liftoff of a civilian space rocket because of a technical problem.
Kim, believed to be in his twenties, has shown no sign of abandoning his country’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea has no plan “at present” to conduct a third nuclear test, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by KCNA in June.
North Korea has more than 250 long-range artillery installations along the Demilitarized Zone, the world’s most fortified border, according to U.S. military estimates.
The two Koreas technically remain at war after the 1950-1953 conflict ended without a peace treaty. The U.S. military has since maintained a presence on the South Korean side of the peninsula, holding wartime operational control. About 28,500 U.S. soldiers are currently stationed in the South.
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