North Korea starts fuelling rocket

North Korea has begun fuelling a long-range rocket and could launch it by the weekend, CNN said, with the United States and others threatening punishment for a move they say violates U.N. resolutions.

Pyongyang has said it will send a satellite into orbit between April 4 and 8 but the United States, South Korea and Japan say the launch is a disguised test of the long-range Taepodong-2 missile, which is designed to carry a warhead to US. territory.

The fuelling signals North Korea is in the final preparation stages for the launch, CNN quoted US military officials as saying in Washington in a report monitored in Seoul on Thursday.

Officials in Seoul could not confirm the report but a presidential Blue House official who asked not to be named said: “It was well-predicted they might start fuelling at this point”.

The North has deployed the newest jet fighters in its ageing air force to a field near the Musudan-ri launch site to prepare for any contingencies, South Korea’s biggest daily Chosun Ilbo quoted government sources as saying.

Pyongyang has threatened to attack any US war planes “meddling” with the planned launch.
The United States, which has missile interceptor warships in the region, has said it has no intention to shoot down the rocket.

The launch will be the first big challenge for US President Barack Obama in dealing with the prickly North, whose efforts to build a nuclear arsenal have long plagued ties with Washington.

In London on Wednesday, a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity on the sidelines of a G20 meeting, said Washington would respond to any North Korean launch by raising the matter in the UN Security Council.

The United States, Japan and South Korea say they see no difference between a satellite and a missile launch because they use the same rocket, the Taepodong-2, which exploded shortly into its only test flight in July 2006.

They say the launch would violate UN Security Council resolutions imposed after the missile’s test in 2006 and the North’s only nuclear test a few months later.

North Korea has said it is putting a satellite into orbit and has the right to do so as part of its peaceful space programme.

Any attempt to punish North Korea will infuriate Pyongyang, which has threatened to restart a plant that makes arms-grade plutonium and quit nuclear disarmament talks if the United Nations takes action.

Analysts said they expect China, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council and the closest thing Pyongyang can claim as a major ally, to block any new sanctions or attempts to tighten the enforcement of existing ones.

Sabre rattling
Traders in Seoul, used to the North’s sabre rattling, shrugged off the latest development, but analysts said an attempt to shoot down the rocket would increase the chance of conflict in North Asia, which accounts for one-sixth of the global economy.

“Market participants have learned over time to remain calm to North Korea-related developments,” said Lee Kyoung-su, a market analyst at Taurus Investment & Securities.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates spoke with Japanese and South Korean political leaders and agreed they would respond calmly to the launch, officials said.

The launch is a risk for the cash-strapped North. A failure would hurt missile sales, one of its few export businesses, and embarrass North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (67) whose suspected stroke in August raised questions about his grip on power.

A successful launch, just ahead of the annual meeting of North’s parliament next week, would put to rest any questions about Kim’s power, analysts said.

“The North Korean people need this. If you have a military first regime [like North Korea’s], it has to been seen as doing something. You are going to need these spectacular displays of North Korean defiance of the outside world,” said Brian Myers, a professor at South Korea’s Dongseo University and a specialist in the North’s state ideology. - Reuters

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