North Korea 'to launch rocket soon'

North Korea will soon launch a long-range rocket after completing preparations to put a satellite into space, its official media said on Saturday, defying international calls to scrap the plan.

“The satellite will be launched soon,” the KCNA news agency said in a report monitored in Seoul.

Japan withdrew an announcement that North Korea had appeared to have launched the rocket. The prime minister’s office said its announcement had been a mistake.

United States President Barack Obama said on Friday the international community would take action if North Korea went ahead with the launch to show Pyongyang it could not act with impunity.

“We will work with all interested partners in the international community to take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that they cannot threaten the safety and stability of other countries with impunity,” Obama said.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak convened a meeting of his top security officials in the basement bunker at the presidential Blue House, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.

Saturday is the first day in the April 4-8 timeframe the secretive North, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, has set for what it calls a satellite launch. Pyongyang has said it will come between the hours of 02:00 GMT and 07:00 GMT.

The US, South Korea and Japan say the launch is a disguised test of the Taepodong-2 missile designed to carry a warhead capable of reaching Alaska.

In its only previous test flight, in July 2006, the missile blew apart about 40 seconds after launch.

Analysts said the launch may help North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shore up support after a suspected stroke in August raised questions of his grip on power and bolster his hand in using military threats to win concessions from global powers.

With an estimated range of 6 700km, the rocket being prepared is supposed to fly over Japan, dropping boosters to its west and east on a path that runs southwest of Hawaii.

North Korea had set up equipment to monitor the launch, the Yonhap quoted a South Korean official as saying.

“Looking from the completion of fuelling and the setting up of monitoring cameras, the possibility of a launch within a few hours is very high,” the official was quoted as saying.

Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper said North Korea had deployed surveillance ships in the Sea of Japan, where the rocket’s first booster stage is supposed to splash down.

After the dust settles

A US envoy suggested the launch may be a foregone conclusion and said he hoped to bring the North back to talks on ending its nuclear programmes.

“We will be ...
working very closely with our partners to ensure that after the dust of the missiles settles a bit, we get back to the longer-term priority of the ... six-party talks,” Stephen Bosworth, the US special representative for North Korea, told reporters in Washington.

While saying the talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US were central to efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear programme, he said Washington was ready for direct contact with Pyongyang at any time.

North Korea believes it has the right to launch the rocket as part of a peaceful space programme, while the US views it as a violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution passed in 2006 after Pyongyang’s nuclear and other missile tests.

That resolution, number 1718, demands North Korea “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme.”

UN Security Council diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity that no one was considering imposing new sanctions but the starting point could be discussing a resolution for the tougher enforcement of earlier sanctions.

Both Russia and China, the latter the nearest the reclusive North has to a major ally, have made clear they would block new sanctions by the Council, where they have veto power.

The former head of the US Missile Defense Agency, retired Air Force Lieutenant-General Henry Obering, said North Korea would show an ability to hit much of the US with a long-range missile if it does put a satellite into space.

Financial markets in South Korea, accustomed to the North’s military taunts over the years, have shrugged off the impending launch. The last test led to a temporary fall in the Japanese yen, a drop in Seoul shares and a small rise in gold prices.—Reuters

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