North Korea readies missile

North Korea has put a long-range missile in place for a launch the United States warned would violate UN sanctions already imposed on the reclusive state for past weapons tests.

South Korea said on Thursday the launch, which like the United States it considers a disguised military exercise, would be a serious challenge to regional security.

The planned launch is the first major test for US President Barack Obama in dealing with the prickly North, whose efforts to build a nuclear arsenal is seen as a top security threat to one of the world’s most economically powerful regions and which has plagued relations with Washington for years.

The South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo quoted a diplomatic source saying the North could technically fire the missile, which has the range to hit US territory, by the weekend. This is earlier than the April 4-8 timeframe Pyongyang announced for what it says is the launch of a communications satellite.

”Technically a launch is possible within three to four days,” the Chosun Ilbo quoted a diplomatic source in Seoul as saying.

The US has spy satellites trained on Taepodong-2 missile launch pad at North Korea’s east coast Musudan-ri missile base.

On Wednesday, a US counter-proliferation official told Reuters that North Korea had appeared to have positioned the rocket on its launch pad.

Another US official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said North Korea had placed together two stages of what is expected to be a three-stage rocket.

Once it has been positioned on the launch pad, North Korea will need several days to fuel the rocket which could, in theory carry a warhead as far as Alaska. I blew apart seconds into its only test flight in July 2006.

Growing tension
”We strongly urge the North to immediately stop the launch of a long-range missile, which would be a clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution 1718,” South Korean Defence Ministry spokesperson Won Tae-jae told reporters, calling the move a serious challenge to regional security and an act of aggression.

The planned launch and growing tension on the Korean peninsula are beginning to worry financial markets in the South though so far there has been only minor impact.

”If they really fire something, it would definitely shake the financial markets, but only briefly, as has been the case in many previous cases of provocation and clashes,” said Jung Sung-min, a fixed-income analyst at Eugene Futures.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Mexico, said the launch would deal a blow to six-party international talks to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

Those talks sputtered to a halt in December over disagreement on how to check the North was disabling its nuclear facilities.

”This provocative action … will not go unnoticed and there will be consequences,” she told reporters, repeating earlier warnings it could put the issue before the UN Security Council for additional sanctions.

More sanctions?
North Korea already faces a range of UN sanctions, some linked to its first nuclear test in 2006, and many analysts doubt new ones would get past China — the nearest Pyongyang has to a powerful ally — in the Security Council.

A successful launch this time would prove a huge boost at home to leader Kim Jong-il, whose illness last year — widely thought to have been a stroke — has raised questions over his grip on power.

A recent photograph in North Korean media showed the normally portly Kim to have lost a lot of weight and looking frail.

It would also be a snub to the South, which hopes to launch its own satellite later this year, and whose conservative government Pyongyang has railed against for ending a once condition-free stream of aid.

North Korea taunted South Korean president Lee Myung-bak over the launch saying in its official KCNA news agency saying he is trying to stop it because: ”It can only be a serious blow to the Lee group, which has been trying to suffocate its compatriots.”

North Korea has given international agencies notice of the rocket’s planned trajectory that would take it over Japan, dropping booster stages to its east and west.

Admiral Timothy Keating, head of US Pacific Command, has said the US military could with ”high probability” intercept any North Korean missile heading for US territory, if ordered to do so.

Pyongyang says any attempt to shoot down the rocket would be an act of war. – Reuters

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