UN agencies: NKorea plans April satellite launch

March 12, 2009 1:13:42 PM PDT
North Korea told two U.N. agencies it plans to launch a communications satellite between April 4 and 8 - an unprecedented disclosure seen as trying to fend off international worries that the launch is really a test of long-range missile technology. The notification to the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization underscores the communist regime is intent on pushing ahead the launch in an attempt to gain greater leverage in negotiations with the United States, analysts say.

The U.S. and other governments have said any rocket launch - whether missile test or satellite - would violate a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution banning North Korea from ballistic missile activity.

The U.N. agencies said Thursday that North Korea informed them by letter of the launch details the day before. It is the first time the regime has offered a safety warning ahead of a missile or a satellite launch, according to the South Korean government.

"They want to do the launch openly while minimizing what the international community may find fault with," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. "The launch will earn North Korea a key political asset that would enlarge its negotiating leverage."

Countries planning a space launch or missile test normally notify maritime or aviation authorities so aircraft and ships can be warned to stay away from affected regions.

But North Korea did not do so ahead of its purported satellite launch in 1998 over Japan and a failed 2006 test-flight of a long-range missile, drawing international condemnations.

IMO information officer Natasha Brown said that North Korea supplied dangerous area coordinates - zones where shipping is advised to be vigilant for any hazard to navigation - for the April launch. They cover parts of the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, she said.

Few buy Pyongyang's claim that it needs a communications satellite when one of the nation's stated top national goals is addressing chronic food shortages.

Use of mobile phones, the Internet and international calls are tightly controlled in the totalitarian North.

"They might put a transistor on the rocket" and claim it was a satellite launch, said Hong Hyun-ik, a North Korea expert at the security think tank Sejong Institute, who is skeptical of the North's intentions.

Officials and experts have said even if a satellite is launched, the North's ultimate goal is to test and demonstrate its missile capabilities.

U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said Tuesday the North may be planning a space launch, but said the technology is no different from that of a long-range missile and its success would mean the country is capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

"If a three-stage space launch vehicle works, then that could reach not only Alaska and Hawaii but part of what the Hawaiians call the mainland and what the Alaskans call the lower 48," he told a Senate panel.

South Korea, Japan and the United States have warned the North against any rocket launch.

"It's provocative, it's not helpful and it's destabilizing," U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Thursday. "We think the North needs to desist, or not carry out this type of provocative act, and sit down ... and work on the process of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

Analysts say a rocket launch would increase the stakes and, more importantly, the benefits the impoverished nation might get from negotiations with the U.S. and other countries trying to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons program.

The launch also could embarrass South Korea, which is still months away from launching a satellite aboard its own rocket. "North Korea has nothing to lose from the launch," said Hong of the Sejong Institute.

That explains why Pyongyang was reluctant to allow the new U.S. special envoy on North Korea to visit, Hong said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that Stephen Bosworth had been prepared to go to North Korea for talks at a moment's notice during a trip last week to Asia, but the North did not invite him.

The missile issue would have topped the agenda if Bosworth had visited the North, Hong said, adding it now appears North Korea will invite the envoy after the launch.

In late March or early April, the country's newly elected legislature is expected to meet for the first time to reconfirm Kim Jong Il as leader.

"The launch will be a celebratory firework" to mark the start of a new term for Kim as chairman of the National Defense Commission, and "a negotiating tool" to pressure the United States, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

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Associated Press writers Kelly Olsen, Kwang-tae Kim and Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.

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