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 a presidential election 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.”
China, the North’s main ally and aid provider, also expressed concerns about the launch. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday acknowledged North Korea’s right to the peaceful use of outer space, but said that had to be harmonized with restrictions including those set by the U.N. Security Council.
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.
North Korea said it chose a safe flight path so debris won’t endanger neighboring countries. But there are still concerns over falling debris, and Japan’s defense minister issued an order to missile units to prepare to intercept the rocket if it or its fragments threaten to hit Japan.
The first stage of the rocket is expected to fall in the Yellow Sea and the second stage in waters east of the Philippines, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said Sunday. The official said Japanese officials provided the information after intercepting a North Korean-dispatched telex about the launch.