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North Korea Seen Preparing Rocket Launch as Soon as Next Week

North Korea Seen Preparing Rocket Launch as Soon as Next Week
Soldiers march during a military parade at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square on April 15, 2012, the centennial of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea. Source: Kyodo via AP

North Korea has moved two sections of a long-range rocket to a launch site in preparation for a firing that may come as soon as next week, according to a U.S. university monitoring project on the totalitarian state.

Satellite photos showing activity at the Sohae site on the northwestern coast are “clear indicators that the rocket stages are being checked out before moving to the pad for an eventual launch,” said the report from the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “If Pyongyang follows past practice in preparing for a launch, it could be ready to fire a rocket as early as the end of the first week in December.”

Photos taken Nov. 23 and Nov. 26 by satellite company DigitalGlobe Inc. also show empty fuel tanks at four locations and activity at buildings used to house dignitaries, the report said. At the same time, North Korea typically fires rockets in its spring or summer after announcing dates closing off sea and air regions. The country has made no such announcement recently.

“Since that has not happened yet, the window would appear to be closing for an early launch,” according to the report.

Speculation of a North Korean ballistic missile test in defiance of international sanctions is increasing, as South Korea delayed plans to launch a civilian space rocket. While it’s unclear why North Korea would fire a rocket now, “speculation has focused on North-South competition prompted by the South Korean satellite launch,” the report said.

Launch Canceled

South Korea yesterday canceled the launch of a rocket carrying a research satellite because of a technical problem and gave no indication when it would go ahead. The firing would be the third attempt to put a satellite into orbit on rocket built with domestic and Russian technology, after launches in 2009 and 2010 failed.

A botched North Korean rocket test in April came three days after South Korean parliamentary elections. Voters go to the polls to pick a new South Korean president on Dec. 19.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has replaced his defense minister, South Korea’s Munhwa Ilbo newspaper said yesterday. Kim Kyok Sik, who is believed to have orchestrated the 2010 shelling of an island that killed four South Koreans and the sinking of a South Korean naval ship that killed 46 sailors, replaces Kim Jong Gak, the newspaper said, citing an unidentified South Korean official.

Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father Kim Jong Il as head of the isolated state last December and has shown no indication of submitting to international calls to end its nuclear weapons program. The Kim regime suffered a public humiliation in April when a long-range rocket failed shortly after liftoff, scrapping a U.S. food aid deal for a country where malnutrition affects about two-thirds of the population of 24 million.

Speaking in Vienna yesterday, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano said North Korea has continued construction of a new light-water nuclear reactor at its Yongbyon site and “largely completed” work on the exterior of main buildings. Amano said he remains “seriously concerned” about North Korea’s nuclear program.

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