The North’s announcement Saturday that it would launch the rocket between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22 came as President Barack Obama prepares for his second term and as South Korea holds presidential elections Dec. 19.
It would be North Korea’s second launch attempt under leader Kim Jong Un, who took power following his father Kim Jong Il’s death nearly a year ago. Some analysts have expressed skepticism that North Korea has corrected whatever caused the embarrassing misfire of its last rocket eight months ago. That launch earned the country widespread international condemnation.
A spokesman for North Korea’s Korean Committee for Space Technology, however, said scientists have “analyzed the mistakes” made in the failed April launch and improved the precision of its Unha rocket and Kwangmyongsong satellite, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
The statement said the launch was a request of late leader Kim Jong Il. He died on Dec. 17, 2011, and North Koreans are expected to mark that date this year with some fanfare. The space agency said the rocket would be mounted with a polar-orbiting Earth observation satellite, and maintained its right to develop a peaceful space program.
Washington considers North Korea’s rocket launches to be veiled covers for tests of technology for long-range missiles designed to strike the United States, and such tests are banned by the United Nations.
“A North Korean `satellite’ launch would be a highly provocative act,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington, D.C. “Any North Korean launch using ballistic missile technology is in direct violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
North Korea has capable short- and medium-range missiles, but long-range launches in 1998, 2006, 2009 and in April of this year ended in failure. North Korea is not known to have succeeded in mounting an atomic bomb on a missile but is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least half a dozen bombs, according to U.S. experts. In 2010 it revealed a uranium enrichment program that could provide a second source of material for nuclear weapons.
Six-nation negotiations on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for aid fell apart in early 2009.
There has been some skepticism about whether North Korea will succeed.
“Preparing for a launch less than a year after a failure calls into question whether the North could have analyzed and fixed whatever went wrong,” David Wright, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote on the organization’s website this week.
In Seoul, South Korean officials have accused North Korea of trying to influence its presidential election with what they consider provocations meant to put pressure on voters and on the United States as the North seeks concessions. Conservative Park Geun-hye, the daughter of late President Park Chung-hee, is facing liberal Moon Jae-in in the South Korean presidential vote. Polls show the candidates in a close race.
North Korea is “working hard to influence the upcoming election. They may have a preferred candidate,” South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said in an interview with a small group of foreign reporters in the presidential Blue House. “Even if they test fire a missile, it will not have a big impact on the election,” Lee said, speaking through an interpreter.
Lee gave the interview Thursday but his office embargoed the publication of his comments until Sunday.