Friday, April 3, 2009
North Korea Rocket Launch on Track
By CHOE SANG-HUN
Published: April 3, 2009
SEOUL, South Korea — Determined to demonstrate its latest missile technology both to its adversaries and perhaps to potential buyers in the Middle East, North Korea pressed ahead with final preparations on Friday to launch a multistage rocket.
The countdown could begin as early as Saturday morning, and North Korea says its rocket will blast off sometime between then and Wednesday. It warned aircraft to stay clear of its easterly trajectory over northern Japan, toward the Pacific.
Weather forecasts say it will be cloudy with no strong winds over the Musudan-ri launching site on North Korea’s coast, meaning the North could launch the rocket anytime during the period.
“I think it’s almost certain North Korea will fire the missile,” President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea said Friday in London, where he was attending the Group of 20 summit meeting, Reuters reported. Mr. Lee vowed a “strong and stern response.”
North Korea says it is launching an experimental communications satellite. But Washington and its allies see the test as a provocative demonstration of ballistic missile technology and an attempt to secure a place on President Obama’s crowded foreign policy agenda.
Neighboring governments were on heightened alert on Friday, and had navy ships with missile-tracking radar deployed in waters near North Korea. For its part, the North reportedly moved jet fighters closer to the launching site and threatened to counterattack if any government tried to stop it.
“It’s too early to say for sure whether the object the North is launching is a satellite or a missile,” said Lee Jong-joo, a government spokeswoman in Seoul. “But our principled position is that whether this is a missile or something else, it threatens peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
Unable to persuade the North to cancel its plan, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul focused on how to forge a unified front with China and Russia in penalizing the North, while also drawing it back to six-nation talks on ending its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea is banned from ballistic missile tests under two United Nations Security Council resolutions, which were adopted in 2006 after it launched a ballistic missile and conducted its first nuclear test.
But if North Korea puts a satellite into orbit — as it claims it wants to do, and as a growing number of analysts believe it will try to do — then any attempt to introduce new sanctions in the Security Council will be hobbled by disputes over whether the North violated the 2006 resolutions, analysts said.
In Strasbourg, France, Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said the launching would be a violation of Security Council resolutions, and said “preparations” were being made if it went ahead, Reuters reported. He did not provide details in comments to reporters during a trip to Europe by Mr. Obama.
Prime Minister Taro Aso of Japan told China’s president, Hu Jintao, during the Group of 20 summit meeting that if the launching went ahead, there should be a new United Nations resolution, the Yomiuri newspaper reported. Mr. Hu showed “some understanding” but did not made a clear commitment, the newspaper said.
For the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, who reportedly suffered a stroke in August, a successful launching would demonstrate his country’s mastery of key missile technologies.
Mr. Kim is also using the tensions he has stirred up to rally his hungry people amid dwindling foreign aid, and to demonstrate to the outside world that he is still in charge, analysts said. In a sales pitch for his missiles, Mr. Kim may also have invited arms dealers from the Middle East to the launching site, they said.
“Evidence suggests that North Korea has had extensive dealings with Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Yemen and Libya on ballistic missiles and possibly even nuclear warheads,” said a recent report from the Congressional Research Service in Washington.
Experts believe that the rocket North Korea is about to launch is derived from its Taepodong-2 missile, which the North began developing in the 1990s. But they are not sure about its potential or the North’s ability to arm missiles with nuclear warheads.
The Congressional Research Service report said some analysts believed that the Taepodong-2 missile could deliver a 700 to 1,000 kilogram payload more than 4,000 miles, within range of the Alaskan coast, as well as all American military targets in Japan and Guam.
The North Korean rocket would weigh about 80 tons and could place a payload of 100 kilograms, or 220 pounds, into orbit at about 250 miles, David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, wrote recently , citing some inconclusive assumptions. When used as a missile, the same rocket could carry a 500-kilogram payload about 5,600 miles, far enough to reach San Francisco.
But “since it likely would be difficult for North Korea to build a first-generation warhead and heat shield with a mass of 500 kilograms, this wouldn’t represent a true intercontinental nuclear capability,” Mr. Wright wrote.
The North’s first test of the Taepodong-2 missile failed in 2006 when it blew apart 40 seconds after launching.