- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Top U.S. defense officials Wednesday expressed pessimism that North Korea would scrap its plans to launch a satellite next month using a long-range missile in violation of international restrictions.

The planned April 15 launch would violate the conditions of a recently agreed-upon deal between North Korean diplomats and U.S. officials for the secretive, totalitarian country to receive U.S. food aid.

Peter Lavoy, the Defense Department’s senior policy official on Asia and Pacific security affairs, said the launch is a “real possibility.”

“Pyongyang is willing to utilize military capabilities with deadly consequences,” Mr. Lavoy said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday.

He added that the missile launch provides an opportunity for North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, to establish his legitimacy as a military leader and to consolidate power.

Army Gen. James D. Thurman, the top U.S military commander on the Korean peninsula, told the committee that Pyongyang has indicated the launch would occur in a “southward direction,” and that several countries could be affected by falling debris, including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Regional and military experts in South Korea and the United States suspect the launch is a cover ballistics missile test.

Wednesday, a North Korean official said the satellite launch will allow his country to estimate crop production and analyze natural resources, the Associated Press reported.

An unnamed North Korean space technology official said that foreign experts and journalists have been invited to the launch to show that the satellite has peaceful and scientific purposes, the AP reported

He also told the official Korean Central News Agency that the satellite weighs 220 pounds and will orbit at an altitude of 310 miles.

Pyongyang claims it put a satellite in orbit in 2009. Washington and Seoul say it did not.

North Korean officials previously had said the launch would honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. His son and successor, Kim Jong-il, died in December, and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un, in January.

About two weeks before North Korea first announced plans for the launch, the U.S. had agreed to send the North food aid in exchange for its commitment not to launch ballistic missiles, among other conditions. The U.S. has suspended the deal.

“It’s regrettable that the food aid is not moving forward,” Mr. Lavoy said, denying that the aid is being used as leverage.

The U.S. usually does not link humanitarian aid with policy matters, but North Korea has “so brazenly violated” the recent deal that U.S. officials have no confidence that the country would abide by the rest of the agreement, Mr. Lavoy said.

He said the U.S. is working with its allies and other partners in the region to try to discourage North Korea from launching the missile.