North Korea back on track to test rocket despite snow

A soldier stands guard in front of a rocket northwest of Pyongyang. Picture: Reuters
A soldier stands guard in front of a rocket northwest of Pyongyang. Picture: Reuters
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A PLANNED rocket launch by North Korea, in defiance of United Nations’ resolutions, looks set to go ahead on Monday, despite snow delaying preparations this week.

Satellite images presented online by US and South Korean analysts revealed that mid-week snow may have held up the launch, contradicting South Korean media reports citing unnamed officials in Seoul which claimed all three stages of the Unha rocket had been mounted on the launchpad by Wednesday.

The UN fears the launch is a test for technology that could be used to target the US and South Korea with a ballistic missile.

North Korea’s determination to test the rocket comes as both Japan and South Korea gear up for elections this month, and ahead of the US president Barack Obama’s inauguration next month for a second term.

Pyongyang insists it has a right to pursue a peaceful space programme and will launch a satellite into orbit sometime between Monday and 22 December. It is thought the launch could be timed to coincide with the first anniversary on 17 December of the death of Kim Jong-il, father of leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea is also celebrating the centennial of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, national founder Kim Il-sung.

North Korea has a long history of developing ballistic missiles, but in four attempts since 1998 has not successfully completed the launch of a three-stage rocket. Its last failed attempt was in April. It has also conducted two nuclear tests, intensifying worry over how its rocket technology could be used in the future, particularly if it masters how to attach a nuclear warhead to a missile.

A senior South Korean official in Seoul yesterday said North Korea has been making technical preparations for a nuclear test and could theoretically conduct one in a short period of time. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

North Korea may have chosen a 12-day launch period, which is more than twice as long as the April period, because it was worried about bad weather, analysts said.

“Pyongyang’s rocket scientists can’t be happy about the increased technical risks of a winter test, but certainly appear to have taken every precaution necessary in order to launch the rocket on time,” said Joel Wit, a former US state department official and online editor.

North Korea’s launch plan is meant to show the world its capability to build missiles, US Pacific forces commander Admiral Samuel Locklear said on Thursday. The US has moved extra ships with ballistic missile defence capabilities toward the region, officials said.

America, Japan and South Korea said they would seek UN Security Council action if the launch goes ahead. The UN condemned April’s launch and ordered seizure of assets of three North Korean state companies linked to financing, exporting and procuring weapons and missile technology.

Yesterday Japanese premier Yoshihiko Noda visited a Tokyo military facility to inspect Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile interceptors being readied to intercept a North Korean rocket if it falls on Japanese territory.