SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - North Korea's positioning of a rocket
on its east coast launchpad ratcheted up tensions Thursday with
Washington, which warned that pushing ahead with the April launch
would violate a U.N. ban and have serious consequences.
Pyongyang says the rocket is designed to carry its
Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite into orbit, an accomplishment timed for
the eve of the inaugural session of North Korea's new parliament
and for late founder Kim Il Sung's April 15 birthday.
But regional powers suspect the North will use the launch to
test the delivery technology for a long-range missile, one capable
of striking Alaska, or may even test-fire the intercontinental
Taepodong-2 missile itself. Keeping speculation about the payload
alive, North Korea reportedly has kept the top of the rocket
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Thursday reiterated
comments made a day earlier by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
that any rocket launch would be "provocative" and violate
Security Council resolutions.
Clinton warned that the launch could jeopardize the stalled
talks on supplying North Korea with aid and other concessions in
exchange for dismantling its nuclear program.
The U.N. Security Council banned North Korea from any ballistic
activity in 2006.
"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
North Korea responded by threatening "strong steps" if the
Security Council so much as criticizes the launch, and suggested it
will reverse nuclear disablement carried out so far if sanctions
are levied. Any challenge to its satellite launch would mean an
immediate nullification of disarmament agreements, the Foreign
Ministry said in a statement carried late Thursday by the state-run
Korean Central News Agency.
The diplomatic tussle puts North Korea right where it wants to
be: at the center of Washington's attention, analysts said.
"This action is something that cannot be ignored. ... This is a
way to get attention from the U.S. and the Obama administration,"
said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International
Crisis Group think tank. "The North Korean leadership probably
believes this will help achieve their objective of engaging the
Analysts say Pyongyang is angling to establish direct relations
with President Barack Obama's White House in hopes of circumventing
the international disarmament talks that require the North to
dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for much-needed aid.
Complicating the diplomacy is the detention of two American
journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling of former Vice President Al
Gore's online media venture Current TV, for allegedly crossing into
North Korea illegally from China last week.
North Korea could use the Americans as bargaining chips, said
North Korea expert Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University. He called
their detention an "unexpected gift" for Pyongyang, giving the
regime added leverage in its push for direct talks with Washington.
"The timing couldn't be better for North Korea," Pinkston
said. "It strengthens the North's bargaining position with the
U.S. in dealing with the nuclear issue."
North Korea had declared last month that it was making "brisk
headway" in preparations to shoot the satellite into space, and
notified aviation and maritime authorities the launch would happen
U.S. spy satellites spotted the rocket two days ago, South
Korean media reports said. Counterterrorism and intelligence
officials in Washington confirmed a rocket was in position.
Once in place, scientists need several days to test and fuel the
rocket, analysts said. 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.
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 with a cover, the Yonhap news
agency said, citing an unnamed South Korean government official.
One analyst called it a possible smokescreen designed to invite
"I think North Korea is trying to raise as much attention as it
can by covering (the top) so that it cannot be verified and it will
create confusion," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the
University of North Korean Studies.
U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said Pyongyang
is trying to cloak the continued development of its outlaw
long-range missile program by using a Taeopodong-2 missile to place
a small satellite into orbit. He would not say whether the rocket
is being fueled.
"I think they are risking international opprobrium and
hopefully worse if they launch it at all," Blair said.
Missiles and satellites share the same delivery technology so
either way, next month's launch "would contribute to the
development of its ballistic capacities," French Foreign Ministry
spokesman Frederic Desagneaux told reporters in Paris.
North Korea is not believed to have mastered the miniaturization
technology required to mount a nuclear weapon onto a ballistic
missile, but successfully test-firing the rocket would be a step
toward developing a means to deliver a nuclear weapon, Koh said.
Seoul warned that a launch would threaten regional stability and
said it would take the matter to the Security Council.
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."
Japan wasn't taking any chances. Spooked by a rocket launch a
decade ago and North Korea's attempt to shoot a long-range missile
in 2006, Tokyo was preparing to shoot down debris or fragments if
the launch - which is expected to pass over the north of the
country - fails.
Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada on Friday ordered a deployment
of land-to-air and sea-to-air interceptor missiles in northern
Along Japan's northern coast, officials set up hot lines and
conducted safety drills. U.S. military officials at Misawa Air Base
across the Sea of Japan from North Korea said they were closely
The U.S. Navy has two Aegis-equipped ships now docked at South
Korea's Busan port, military spokesman Kim Yong-kyu said. 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.