NKorea positions rocket for April liftoff

March 26, 2009 9:10:03 AM PDT
The U.S. and South Korea warned of serious consequences Thursday if North Korea forges ahead and fires a rocket that American officials say is now positioned on a launchpad in the northeast for fueling. Pyongyang says the rocket will carry a satellite, but regional powers suspect the North will use the launch to test the delivery technology for a long-range missile capable of striking Alaska. They have said the launch - banned by the U.N. Security Council in 2006 - would trigger sanctions.

Analysts say that after positioning the rocket, scientists need a number of days to conduct tests and to fuel the projectile, keeping Pyongyang on track for liftoff during the announced April 4-8 launch dates.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned such a "provocative act" could jeopardize the stalled talks on supplying North Korea with aid and other concessions in exchange for dismantling its nuclear program.

"We intend to raise this violation of the Security Council resolution, if it goes forward, in the U.N.," Clinton said Wednesday in Mexico City. "This provocative action in violation of the U.N. mandate will not go unnoticed, and there will be consequences."

North Korea responded Thursday by threatening "strong steps" if the Security Council criticizes the launch, and suggested it would reverse nuclear disablement carried out so far. Any challenge to its bid to send the satellite into space would mean an immediate end to nuclear disarmament talks, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea had declared last month that it was making "brisk headway" in preparations to send its Kwangmyongsong-2 communications satellite into space, and notified aviation and maritime authorities the launch would happen April 4-8, just before North Korea's new parliament holds its inaugural session on April 9. It will also come just before late North Korea founder Kim Il Sung's April 15 birthday.

Commercial satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe has revealed steady progress toward a launch, with a flurry of activity at the Musudan-ni site in late February and an open hatch and crane hovering above the launchpad two weeks ago, Jane's Intelligence Review editor Christian Le Miere said.

U.S. spy satellites spotted the rocket two days ago, South Korean reports said - the first indication that the countdown toward a launch has begun. Counterterrorism and intelligence officials in Washington confirmed that a rocket was in position.

North Korea is now "technically" capable of launching it in three to four days, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing an unnamed diplomatic official.

However, South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities have not yet determined whether the rocket is intended to carry a satellite or a missile because the top is concealed, the Yonhap news agency said, citing an unnamed South Korean government official.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux told reporters Thursday that, because the technology for launching satellites and ballistic missiles is the same, "a space launch by North Korea would contribute to the development of its ballistic capacities."

Seoul, meanwhile, urged the North to cancel the launch, warning that the move would threaten regional stability and draw international sanctions.

"If North Korea pushes ahead with the launch by ignoring repeated warning by our government and the international community, that would be a serious challenge and provocation on security on the Korean peninsula and regional stability in Northeast Asia," Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae told reporters.

Seoul will take the matter to the Security Council whether it's a satellite or a missile, Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said.

North Korea's bid to send a satellite comes at a time of mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula, with Pyongyang lashing out over South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's tough policy toward the North.

Seoul's decision to hold routine military drills with U.S. troops drew a threat from Pyongyang against South Korean airliners flying over North Korean airspace. North Korea also cut off the only military communications hot line connecting the two Koreas during the 12-day exercises, and repeatedly shut down its border crossing.

Pyongyang is also at odds with Washington over nuclear disarmament, and is holding two American journalists they accuse of crossing into the country illegally from China last week.

Analysts say Pyongyang, angling to get President Barack Obama's attention, may use the journalists - Lisa Ling and Euna Lee of former Vice President Al Gore's online media outlet Current TV - to push for direct talks with Washington, a prime goal of leader Kim Jong Il.

"North Korea appears to be judging that the issue of the two U.S. journalists could serve as a very good occasion in opening up negotiations with the U.S. on its missile and nuclear programs in the future," said analyst Paik Hak-soon of the private Sejong Institute.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang urged restraint, saying he hoped all parties would "do things to contribute to peace and stability on the peninsula."

U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said earlier this month that indications suggest North Korea will launch a satellite.

However, Tokyo, spooked by a rocket launch a decade ago and North Korea's attempt to shoot a long-range missile in 2006, is preparing to shoot down any debris or fragments that might fall on Japan if the launch fails.

Along Japan's northern coast, officials are setting up hot lines and emergency headquarters and conducting safety drills, officials said. U.S. military officials at Misawa Air Base across the Sea of Japan from North Korea say they are closely monitoring activities.

Japan also reportedly plans to deploy an Aegis radar-equipped destroyer carrying a missile interceptor, and South Korea also will dispatch a destroyer to monitor the launch, Yonhap said. Four U.S. and Japanese Aegis ships already are in place, Yonhap said.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Mexico City, Pamela Hess in Washington, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, and Kwang-tae Kim and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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