South Korea Launches Rocket as North Warns of Nuclear Test

South Korea launched a civilian space rocket and satellite as signs mount that North Korea, which sent a satellite into orbit in December, is preparing to test a nuclear device.

The 33-meter (108-feet) KSLV-I Naro rocket was launched from a site near Goheung, 330 kilometers (200 miles) south of Seoul, at about 4 p.m., Lee Ju Ho, Minister of Education Science and Technology, said in a televised press conference. The launch was successful with separation of the rocket’s first and second stages complete, Lee said. Naro, which is built with domestic and Russian technology and carries a 100-kilogram research satellite, has had two failed launches since 2009.

South Korea has spent about $500 million on the project, chasing a toehold in the space services market estimated to provide a 5.5 trillion won ($5 billion) boost to the economy. North Korea is threatening to conduct its third nuclear test in response to tighter United Nations sanctions imposed after last month’s rocket launch.

“South Korea’s Naro rocket launch won’t be a threat to the North but will give it an opportunity to criticize the United Nations Security Council for what it sees as double standards, pointing out that the South is permitted to launch satellites when the North is banned,” said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has maintained the military-first policy he inherited from his father Kim Jong Il over a year ago. On Jan. 24 his regime threatened to detonate an atomic device after the Security Council passed the resolution, and two days later he vowed “high-profile” retaliation against the U.S. and its allies.

Nuclear Preparation

The Punggye-ri nuclear site about 370 kilometers northeast of Pyongyang, where North Korea conducted its previous nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, may be in a continued state of readiness, according to the 38 North website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where recent satellite photos were analyzed. Analysis of the area was based upon imagery taken Jan. 23 compared with previous images, it said.

“Snowfall and subsequent clearing operations as well as tracks in the snow reveal ongoing activity at buildings and on roadways near the possible test tunnel,” 38 North said.

North Korea is ready to conduct a nuclear test “at any time,” South Korea’s Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok told reporters in Seoul yesterday. The totalitarian state may also seek other ways to provoke the international community even without a nuclear test, he said.

Economic Benefit

Kim’s regime has enough weaponized plutonium for as many as eight basic nuclear weapons, according to estimates by Stanford University nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who visited North Korea’s atomic uranium-enrichment and other facilities in 2010.

A successful Naro launch would bring South Korea economic benefits of as much as 5.5 trillion won by 2020 from higher value-added exports and a share of the global space-services market, Hyundai Research Institute said in a report on Jan. 28.

The satellite, which will be used for research including measuring space radiation, is in orbit, according to the government’s televised briefing today. Officials won’t know if the satellite is operating until contact is made at 3:37 a.m. tomorrow.

During Naro’s last launch in June 2010, contact with the rocket, which is presumed to have blown up, was lost within minutes of liftoff. On the first attempt in August 2009, a protective cover failed to properly separate from the satellite, causing it to overshoot its planned altitude. The third attempt to launch the Naro was canceled twice last year because of technical issues.

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute is leading the project, in collaboration with over 150 South Korean companies, including Korean Air Lines Co., Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. and Doosan Infracore Co., the agency said on its website.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Japan’s space agency successfully launched two information-gathering satellites on Jan. 27, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said in a statement. The U.S. on the same day tested a three-stage ground-based missile interceptor, the Missile Defense Agency said in an e-mailed statement.

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