February 24, 2009

Suspicions Surround Upcoming N Korean Satellite Launch

North Korea said on Tuesday it was preparing to launch a communications satellite on one of its rockets, saying it would mark a great step forward for the communist state.

The announcement, which came in a statement from the national space agency carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), did not include a target date for the launch, which some analysts believe will actually be the test-firing of a long-range missile.

The news comes amid heightened tensions with South Korea, and with Pyongyang jockeying for priority on the agenda of U.S. President Barack Obama's new administration. 

North Korea tested its Taepodong-1 missile in 1998, claiming at the time to have put a satellite in orbit. It test-fired the three-stage long-range Taepodong-2 in July 2006, but the missile failed shortly after liftoff.

"Full-scale preparations are under way to launch a rocket Unha-2 to put communication satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 into orbit," North Korea's space agency said in its statement.

"When this satellite is successfully launched, our space technology will make a great step forward toward becoming an economically strong country."

The launch is planned from a base in Hwadae, called Musudan-ri, in the northeast part of the country, according to the statement. Musudan-ri was the location North Korea used to test-fire its long-range Taepodong-2 in 2006.

The announcement worried financial markets in South Korea, and follows weeks of heated rhetoric from Pyongyang and warnings that the region was on the cusp of war.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency cited an intelligence official that said satellite images showed activity at Musudan-ri, but no missile on the launch pad.

There are concerns that such a missile, with a theoretical range of 4,200 miles, could be used to target Alaska.  However, the last test failed in less than a minute when the missile fell to sea.

North Korea's announcement comes amid stalled discussions on an aid-for-disarmament agreement involving the China, the U.S., Russia, Japan and South Korea. 

Relations between North and South Korea became further stressed after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak decided to link the provision of bilateral aid to progress on de-nuclearization.

Pyongyang has recently abandoned several peace deals with Seoul.

The proposed launch follows speculation about Kim Jong-il's health.   The North Korean leader is believed to have suffered a stroke in mid-2008.

On a trip to Asia last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned North Korea against any hasty moves, calling a potential test-launch "unhelpful".

Lee Sang-hee, South Korea's Defense Minister, called on North Korea to provide proof of its claim that a satellite, rather than a missile, would be launched.

"Whether it is a missile or a satellite, it is similar technology. In either case, we believe it is a threatening act towards us and we are preparing to deal with it accordingly," he said.

China said it had taken note of the announcement, and called for regional stability, while Japan said it is assessing the situation.

North Korea conducted nuclear weapons testing in 2006, but experts say the nation does not yet have the technology to make a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a missile.

Image Caption: Taepodong-1 missile