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North Korea says will launch 'satellite' in mid-April

The announcement came despite an agreement on Feb. 29 with the US to temporarily halt its uranium enrichment. -Korea Herald/ANN
Song Sang-ho

Sat, Mar 17, 2012
The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

North Korea said Friday that it would launch a satellite in mid-April to mark the centennial birthday of its late founder Kim Il-sung, a move that experts say is a cover for another long-range missile test.

The announcement came despite an agreement on Feb. 29 with the US to temporarily halt its uranium enrichment at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon and put a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for 240,000 tons of "nutritional assistance."

North Korea said the Unha-3 rocket carrying Kwangmyongsong-3 will lift off from its satellite launching station in North Pyongan Province between April 12 and 16, the Korean Committee for Space Technology said in Pyongyang.

The statement by the committee's spokesperson was carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

"(We) have set a safe flight route so that the debris that could be made in the process of the satellite launch would not affect the neighboring states," it said.

"We will guarantee that we will abide by international rules and customs pertaining to the peaceful launch of the science technology satellite and secure the transparency (of its launch process.)"

Seoul's Foreign Ministry expressed "grave concern" over Pyongyang's launch plan.

"If North Korea were to proceed with the 'application satellite' launch as stated in the announcement, it would be a clear violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 which bans 'any launch using ballistic missile technology' and would constitute a highly provocative action threatening peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia," it said in a statement.

After it tested its Taepodong-2 missile in April 2009, the North also argued that it was a satellite launch.

The launch ended in failure after the rocket fell into the Pacific Ocean after traveling some 3,200 kilometers from the North's launch site of Musudanri in North Hamgyeong Province.

Experts here argued that Pyongyang's announcement on the "satellite launch" is its typical way of raising its bargaining power during negotiations with Washington over its nuclear program.

"The North apparently wants to get more food aid from the US (beyond what was agreed on last month). To get more concessions from Washington, a nuclear test is sort of too much, but a missile test under the disguise of a satellite test is what they can use now," said Lee Dae-woo, senior fellow at Sejong Institute, a local think tank.

North Korea has been preparing to declare its emergence as a "strong, prosperous nation."

It claims it has already become a strong nation militarily and ideologically, claiming that it has developed nuclear weapons and is armed with its strong ideology of Juche, or self-reliance.

But to achieve its goal on the economic front and further consolidate the power of its new leader Kim Jong-un, the impoverished state is now in desperate need of economic assistance from outside.

It is also part of the reason for its push to hold the multinational aid-for-denuclearization talks.

Nam Chang-hee, political science professor at Inha University, said that launching a rocket on the centennial birthday of its founding father would help maximize its desired effect of a militarily strong nation.

"The North has publicized its aim for more than 10 years to become a powerful state, and it now needs a symbolic event to prove its military might internationally. If it launches what it calls a satellite, it could maximize its dramatic impact on the birthday," Nam said.

Nam added that should the US pledge bigger economic aid to the North, Pyongyang could cancel its launch plan, and that Washington may not give up last month's breakthrough deal with Pyongyang given its domestic political situation.

"The US might feel disappointed should the North resort to its 'salami' tactics once again," Nam said, referring to Pyongyang's notorious negotiating strategy of dividing and separating issues and constantly making new demands for progress at every step.

"President Obama now faces a reelection battle and has been engaged in a Iranian nuke issue. Thus, rather than giving up the deal, I believe the US is likely to continue its negotiations with the North."

Han Yong-sup, vice president of Korea National Defense University, said that the North's launch plan appears to be aimed at undermining the outcome of the Nuclear Security Summit slated to take place in Seoul from March 26-27.

"We should wait and see how the North would move. But it appears to seek to damage the outcome of the nuclear summit and get more concessions from the US It may try to upgrade its Taepodong missile through the planned launch," he said.

Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in early 2011 that North Korea with its continuing development of missiles and nuclear weapons is becoming a "direct" threat to the US He also pointed out that the North will have developed an intercontinental missile "within a five-year time frame."

The longest-range North Korean missile under development is the Taepodong-2 missile, presumed to have a range of more than 6,700 kilometers, far enough to hit parts of Alaska, but still incapable of reaching the US mainland.

All two test launches of the Taepodong-2 missile failed. In July 2006, the missile exploded in the air right after lift-off.

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