North Korea Plans Rocket Launch as South Prepares to Vote

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 will fire a long-range rocket this month in defiance of international sanctions as the totalitarian regime marks the anniversary of former leader Kim Jong Il’s death and as South Koreans go to the polls to elect a new president.

The communist state will launch a polar-orbiting earth observation satellite atop an Unha-3 rocket between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22, state-run Korean Central News Agency said yesterday. South Korea “sternly” warned its neighbor against the plan, which it said would bring a “forceful response” from the world.

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. An unsuccessful attempt to fire a long-range rocket earlier this year cost the impoverished country a food-aid deal with the U.S.

North Korea is trying to interfere in South Korea’s presidential election scheduled for Dec. 19, President Lee Myung Bak said today in an interview with South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

“North Koreans must recognize the grim fact that their futile campaigns only aggravate the feelings of South Koreans toward the North,” Lee was cited as saying.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda canceled talks between Japanese and North Korean government officials scheduled for Dec. 5-6 on issues such as Japanese citizens abducted by the communist state, Kyodo news reported today, without citing anyone.

April Launch

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.

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.

North Korea, ruled by third-generation dictator Kim Jong Un, 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 announcements a cover for testing long-range ballistic missiles.

Kim’s Death

The rocket is likely to be launched on Dec. 17, the first anniversary of former leader Kim Jong Il’s death from a heart attack, 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 rocket plan was condemned by the U.K. and U.S. governments.

“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.”

‘Highly Provocative’

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described North Korea’s actions as “highly provocative.”

“Devoting scarce resources to the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles will only further isolate and impoverish North Korea,” Nuland said in an e-mailed statement. “The United States is consulting closely with its Six-Party and other key allies and partners on next steps.”

“Our policy is clear,” U.S. Defense Department spokesman George Little said in an e-mailed statement. “North Korea must abide by its international obligations under UN Security Council resolutions that clearly articulate what it can and cannot do with respect to missile technologies.”

North Korea’s repeated attempts to fire long-range rockets, in violation of UN resolutions, are a “full-frontal challenge” to the international community,” Cho Tai Young, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, said in a statement on the ministry’s website. Any North Korean launch using ballistic missile technology is banned by UN Security Council resolutions, he said.

Missile Range

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 was becoming a “direct threat” to the U.S. and would probably develop an intercontinental ballistic missile within five years, then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in January 2011. 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.

South’s Rocket

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.

It also follows North Korea’s artillery shelling two years ago of Yeonpyeong Island near a disputed sea border, which killed four people. The regime said the attack was retaliation for South Korean artillery fire in the area.

North Korea won’t “miss the opportunity” if “warmongers perpetrate another provocation,” an unidentified North Korean military spokesman said in a statement published on Nov. 22 by the official KCNA.

In April, an Unha-3 rocket, which North Korea said carried a Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite, failed minutes after liftoff in a setback to Kim’s then four-month-old regime. Under his father Kim Jong Il, who ruled the secretive nation from 1994 to 2011, North Korean tests included a Taepodong-2 missile in April 2009, which flew 3,800 kilometers to 4,000 kilometers before disintegrating.

Nuclear Ambitions

Kim, believed to be in his twenties, has also shown no sign of abandoning his country’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea has no plan “at present” to conduct a nuclear test, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by KCNA in June.

North Korea, which twice detonated nuclear devices, said in April 2009 it would restore its main reactor for making weapons-grade plutonium at Yongbyon, which was disabled under a February 2007 agreement made at six-party talks including North and South Korea, Russia, China, the U.S. and Japan.

The regime denied having a separate uranium-enrichment program until September 2009, when it told the UN Security Council it was “weaponizing” plutonium and had almost succeeded in highly enriching uranium.

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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