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North Korea May Have Started Disassembling Rocket, YTN Says

North Korea may be disassembling a rocket it planned to launch this month, South Korea broadcaster YTN said, in a potential setback to the totalitarian state’s attempt to recover from a misfire eight months ago.

Satellite photos show workers may have begun taking apart its three-stage rocket, YTN reported, citing an unidentified South Korean government official. South Korean and U.S. military officials are analyzing the satellite imagery to find a reason for the move, according to the report.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry is looking into the reports, a official said on condition of anonymity in line with ministry policy. The official declined further comment.

North Korea’s space agency yesterday extended the Dec. 10-22 time frame for firing the rocket by one week to Dec. 29, citing technical difficulties in its “first-stage control engine module.” The delay came as Kim Jong Un’s regime faced cold weather and international condemnation for the plan.

A botched test would add to Kim’s embarrassment earlier this year after an April launch failed shortly after liftoff and scuttled a U.S. food aid deal. The international community including China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner and ally, ramped up calls to cancel liftoff, while the United Nations Security Council discussed possible punitive measures.

China’s Role

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov will meet chief South Korean nuclear envoy Lim Sung Nam tomorrow in Seoul and South Korean foreign ministry official Kim Bong Hyun will travel to Beijing on Dec. 17 to meet Chinese officials, Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai Young said today in Seoul.

Commerce with China accounted for 89 percent of North Korea’s total, at $5.6 billion, according to data collected by the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency in Seoul. North Korea doesn’t release economic data.

China is monitoring the situation and has been in contact with North Korea and the U.S. over the issue, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a briefing in Beijing today.

“We hope that all parties will focus on the big picture, to handle the issue calmly and properly to avoid further escalation of conflicts” on the peninsula, Hong said.

U.S. Response

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi Dec. 7 and discussed “what influence China could bring to bear” in getting Kim’s regime to focus on feeding its people instead of ballistic missile launches, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns plans to meet today in Washington with Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international department. Wang met with Kim in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on Nov. 30.

The U.S. has deployed ships capable of intercepting the rocket, while Japan has readied its military and is fully prepared to respond as needed to, chief cabinet secretary Osamu Fujimura said yesterday in Tokyo.

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