North Korea plans to launch long-range rocket

Published: Friday, March 16 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012 file photo, New North Korean soldiers chant and march at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, North Korea, during a parade of thousands of soldiers commemorating the 70th birthday of the country's late leader Kim Jong Il.

Associated Press

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PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea announced plans Friday to blast a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket, a surprise move that could jeopardize a weeks-old agreement with the U.S. exchanging food aid for nuclear concessions.

The North agreed to a moratorium on long-range launches as part of the deal with Washington, but argues that satellite launches are part of a peaceful space program that is exempt from international disarmament obligations. The U.S., South Korea and other critics say the rocket technology overlaps with belligerent uses and condemn the satellite program as a disguised way of testing military missiles in defiance of a U.N. ban.

The launch is to take place three years after a similar launch in April 2009 drew widespread censure.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the announcement of the launch "highly provocative."

"Such a missile launch would pose a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea's recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches," she said in a statement, urging Pyongyang to abide by its international obligations.

Japan urged Pyongyang to abandon the launch, calling it a violation of a U.N. resolution restricting the North's use of ballistic missile technology, and South Korea's Foreign Ministry called the plans a "grave provocation."

Liftoff will take between April 12 and 16 from a west coast launch pad in North Phyongan province, a spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology said in a statement carried by state media.

He said the launch would be part of celebrations marking the April 15 centenary of the birth of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung.

"This is a grand event that shows off our national power," Pyongyang officer worker Choe Myong Suk told The Associated Press as rain fell in the North Korean capital Friday. "We can say that our country has proudly joined the ranks of developed countries."

North Koreans often repeat official state slogans when asked their views of current events.

Pyongyang's announcement comes as North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, seeks to solidify his rule of the nation of 24 million people in the wake of father Kim Jong Il's death in December.

"The window for the launch is important in terms of the domestic politics of the North," said Daniel Pinkston, an expert on North Korea's weapons programs at the International Crisis Group. He said the launch serves to underline North Korea's military capabilities and reinforce Kim's fledgling rule.

Kim Jong Il began grooming the son to take over as leader after suffering a stroke in 2008. Footage aired Friday on state-run TV showed Kim Jong Un observing the 2009 rocket launch.

Such a launch aims to reinforce unity at home by provoking new tensions that will allow its leadership to portray the country as beset by hostile forces. A third nuclear test could be next, Pinkston said.

The launch also jeopardizes the recent food aid deal with the U.S., he said.

"I can't see how the U.S. is going to deliver this food aid," he said. "I think this is going to kill it."

North Korea agreed last month to suspend uranium enrichment, place a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and to allow back U.N. weapons inspectors in exchange for much-needed food aid. Uranium enrichment is one way to make atomic bombs. In the past North Korea has also weaponized plutonium for nuclear devices.

North Korea called the April 2009 launch a bid to send a communications satellite into space, but it was widely viewed in the West as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from engaging in nuclear and ballistic missile activity.

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