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Pyongyang’s announcement was a “pretty wild claim for a country that has never successfully put an object into orbit before,” said Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force Space Command officer now with the Secure World Foundation think tank.

Mr. Weeden said the secretive communist regime is likely trying to emulate Iran, which in 2009 launched a communications satellite into orbit to only muted international criticism.

“That means doing everything on the surface that one would do if it were indeed a launch of a satellite for peaceful purposes,” he said.

He suspects, however, that the North Koreans are falsely “marketing” a missile test as a space launch.

If the launch is successful, it will demonstrate a capability to build a missile with enough range to reach parts of Alaska, 3,100 miles away.

North Korea is believed to have several nuclear weapons, although it has not overcome the difficult engineering challenges involved in fitting an atomic device into a warhead.

Mr. Pike played down the danger from this week’s planned launch itself, calling the U.S. and Japanese deployment of anti-missile units “posturing.”

“The whole reason [the North Koreans] are launching from the west coast rather than the east coast this time is so they won’t overfly Japan,” he said, referring to the newly built Sohae satellite station.

North Korea’s previous three multistage rocket launches were carried out from the Tonghae station, in the far northeast of the country, meaning their flight paths took them over Japan’s main islands.

The flight path from the new launch station will take the rocket over the Philippines, where officials said they would be relying on the United States and other allies to help them shoot down the rocket if it threatened to fall over the island nation.

“I feel reassured because of the capabilities of these countries. … We have the U.S. military base in Okinawa. We have also Japan and South Korea,” Philippine Civil Defense Administrator Benito Ramos told Voice of America.

If the rocket or a piece of it fell to Earth just a degree or two off its projected flight path, it would fall onto the northern island of Luzon, he said.

Mr. Pike said it was extremely unlikely that any part large enough to do serious damage would fall to earth if something went wrong

“When a rocket fails, it tends to fail completely, not slightly,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.