Apr 112012

North Korea on Wednesday announced it was pumping propellant into its long-range rocket “as we speak,” despite repeated international warnings to abandon its plans to fire the rocket into space.

Pyongyang insists the pending takeoff of its liquid-fueled Unha 3 rocket is aimed at placing an observation satellite into rotation around the Earth; its Asian neighbors and the United States view the effort as a cover for another long-range ballistic missile test, which North Korea is prohibited from conducting under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“We don’t really care about the opinions from the outside,” Korean Committee of Space Technology satellite control center head Paek Chang-ho said. “This is critical in order to develop our national economy.”

North Korea has announced the rocket firing would take place sometime between Thursday and Monday.

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North Korea on Tuesday announced that it had made ready to fire a long-range rocket into space, rejecting claims that the satellite launch would be cover for a new ballistic missile test, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, April 9).

The world braces and holds its breath as all signs point to North Korea preparing for a missile test

Space Development Department Deputy Director Ryu Kum Chol at a news briefing in Pyongyang said the Earth-observation satellite was undergoing fitting to the Unha 3 rocket on Tuesday. “All the assembly and preparations of the satellite launch are done,” he said.

Outside specialists think the Unha 3 rocket is a modified version of the North’s Taepodong 2 long-range ballistic missile, which is last assumed to have been tested in spring 2009. Pyongyang is understood to be advancing its ballistic missile development though it is not yet thought to have developed nuclear weapons small enough to be carried by missiles.

Ryu admitted there was a resemblance between the Unha 3 and a ballistic missile but said the satellite-carrying rocket would use liquid fuel rather than the solid fuel employed to power ballistic missiles. He also said the rocket lacked the capacity to carry heavy explosives.

“Our satellite weighs 100 kilograms. For a weapon, a 100-kilogram payload wouldn’t be very effective,” Ryu said, rejecting as “nonsense” international worries that the launch would be used as a ballistic missile test.

The space technology official declined to address reports that North Korea is preparing for a third nuclear test (Associated Press/Time, April 10).

This March 28, 2012 satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows North Korea’s Tongchang-ri Launch Facility on the nation’s northwest coast
DigitalGlobe / AP

“The launch of the Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite is the gift from our people to our great leader, comrade Kim Il Sung, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, so this cannot be a missile test,” Ryu was quoted by Reuters as saying. Kim Il Sung is North Korea’s regime founder and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un (Maxim Duncan, Reuters I, April 10).

In a telephone conversation on Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin agreed that the looming rocket launch would be a “serious provocation and a violation of North Koreas’ international obligations and standing U.N. Security Council resolutions,” according to Defense Department spokesman George Little.

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‘Year of provocation’ from North Korea

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, shown on April 5, on Monday warned North Korea against conducting its third nuclear test. Recent satellite images indicate the North is preparing for another underground blast

The United States on Monday warned North Korea against carrying out a third nuclear test after new satellite images indicated the isolated nation was close to finishing a new tunnel that could be used in an underground atomic detonation, Reuters reported (see GSN, April 9).

Pyongyang is forbidden under U.N. Security Council resolutions from conducting atomic tests. It has carried out two to date, in 2006 and 2009. Nuclear specialists believe a third test would be aimed at advancing North Korea’s ability to build warheads small enough to be mounted on missiles, according to previous reporting.

North Korea has aggravated the international community with its plans to fire a long-range rocket into space — an action the United States and partner nations have condemned as a violation of Security Council prohibitions on the aspiring nuclear power’s use of ballistic missile technology. The rocket launch is expected to come sometime between April 12 and 16 (see related GSN story, today).

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said a new North Korean nuclear blast “would be equally bad if not worse” than the rocket launch, which Washington sees as a cover for another long-range ballistic missile test.

Nuland would not tell journalists whether the Obama administration possesses information that points to a new atomic trial.

Unidentified South Korean government officials on Sunday told a number of news organizations that satellite pictures taken last week show a growing mound of dirt outside what appears to be a new tunnel at North Korea’s atomic test site (Arshad Mohammed, Reuters, April 10).

“North Korea is digging up a new underground tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, in addition to its existing two underground tunnels, and it has been confirmed that the excavation works are in the final stages,” according to a South Korean intelligence analysis of the April 1 satellite images.

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