Seoul: North Korea said Tuesday it is preparing to shoot a satellite into orbit, its clearest reference yet to an impending launch that neighbors and the U.S suspect will be a provocative test of a long-range missile.
The statement from the North’s space technology agency comes amid growing international concern that the communist nation is gearing up to fire a version of its most advanced missile - capable of reaching the U.S - in coming days, in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution.
North Korea asserted last week it has the right to “space development” - words the regime has used in the past to disguise a missile test. In 1998, North Korea test-fired a Taepodong-1 ballistic missile over Japan and then claimed to have put a satellite into orbit.
“The preparations for launching experimental communications satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 by means of delivery rocket Unha-2 are now making brisk headway” at a launch site in Hwadae in the northeast, the North’s space agency said in a statement carried by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency. The report did not say when the launch would take place.
Intelligence officials reported a flurry of personnel and vehicle activity at the Hwadae launch site, the Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday. However, the North has not yet placed a rocket on the launch pad, the report said. After mounting the satellite or missile, it would take five to seven days to fuel the rocket, experts say.
Hwadae is also the launch site for North Korea’s longest-range missile, the Taepodong-2, with the potential to reach Alaska. Reports suggest the missile being readied for launch could be an advanced version of the Taepodong-2 with even greater range: the U.S. west coast.
“As long as North Korea announced that it is preparing to launch Kwangmyongsong-2, it should clearly present evidence that it is a satellite,” South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee said Tuesday, according to Yonhap.
Either way, he said South Korea would consider any launch a “threat” because the technologies are similar. He has said launch preparations could be completed within two weeks.
“We’re watching the situation closely. We hope they are not going to launch a missile,” Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told AP Television News on Tuesday in Beijing as he arrived for talks with senior Chinese officials.
Analysts have warned for weeks that the North may fire a missile to send a strong signal to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took office a year ago Wednesday with a hard-line policy on North Korea, and to new President Barack Obama.
North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity under a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted after the North’s first-ever nuclear test in 2006.
South Korea, Japan and the United States have warned Pyongyang not to fire a missile. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the North to stop its “provocative actions,” saying a missile test would “be very unhelpful.”
“The Japanese government urges North Korea to refrain from actions that will disturb peace and stability of the region,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said Tuesday in Tokyo.
Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said Pyongyang’s reference to a space program “means they’re going to fire a long-range missile, but would call it a satellite to minimize friction with the United States and international criticism.”
Pyongyang recently has stepped up its hostile rhetoric against South Korea, saying it is “fully ready” for war. The two Koreas technically remain at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The country test-launched a Taepodong-2 missile in 2006, but it plunged into the ocean shortly after liftoff.