- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - North Korea said Saturday it would launch its controversial rocket “soon” as regional powers deployed warships and trained satellites on the communist country to monitor what they suspect will be a long-range missile test.

The North has said the liftoff will take place sometime between Saturday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (0200 to 0700 GMT).

On Saturday morning, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said preparations for launching “an experimental communications satellite” were done, adding: “The satellite will be launched soon.” But nearly four hours later, there was no word of the launch.

With clouds over the launch area, winds were picking up during the day. A midday report on North Korean state radio cited “relatively strong” winds _ not ideal launch conditions.

North Korea was pressing ahead despite mounting international pressure to back down, with its closest ally, China, vowing to try to the last minute.

“Respective nations made efforts to urge North Korea to refrain from the launch. But if North Korea really plans to launch, it is very regrettable,” Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone told reporters Saturday.

President Barack Obama said Friday a launch would be “provocative” and lead the U.S. to “take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that it can’t threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity.”

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo suspect North Korea’s real motive is to test its long-range missile technology _ a worrying development because North Korea has acknowledged it has nuclear weapons and has repeatedly broken promises to shelve its nuclear program or halt rocket tests.

U.N. Security Council diplomats, anticipating a weekend emergency session if the launch proceeds, said a draft resolution was circulating that could essentially reaffirm and tighten enforcement of the demands and sanctions of a resolution passed in October 2006 after a North Korean nuclear test. It banned North Korea from ballistic missile activity.

A strong united response might be elusive because China and Russia hold veto power in the council and could argue that nonmilitary space missions are exempt.

Japan has deployed warships and Patriot missile interceptors off its northern coast to shoot down any wayward rocket parts that the North has said might fall over the area as the first and second stages fall into the sea on either side of the country.

Tokyo has said it is only protecting its territory and has no intention of trying to shoot down the rocket itself, but North Korea accused Japan of inciting militarism at home to justify developing a nuclear weapons program of its own.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK, citing the government, briefly reported that North Korea appeared to have launched a rocket.

Osamu Sakashita, a spokesman for the prime minister’s office, later said the information was incorrect. The Defense Ministry said “wrong information” went out after a military radar picked up a signal in the Sea of Japan. “We are investigating what the radar really caught,” a ministry statement said.

Pressure on Pyongyang to drop the plan has been intense.

Meeting Friday in London, Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, that the “rocket launch would negatively affect peace and stability in Northeast Asia and there should be a discussion among related countries” after it takes place, Lee’s office said.

Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. envoy on North Korea, said the communist nation would face consequences if the launch goes ahead.

But he also said he is prepared to go to Pyongyang after the “dust from the missiles settles” in order to restart six-nation negotiations aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

North Korea also is holding two American journalists accused of crossing into the country illegally from China and engaging in “hostile acts.” Euna Lee and Laura Ling, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore’s Current TV media venture, were detained last month.

North Korea has warned against any efforts to censure it. It also has threatened retaliation against any efforts to intercept the rocket, telling Japan such a move would mean “war,” and said American high-altitude U-2 spy planes would be shot down if they intrude into its airspace.

South Korea has set up task forces to monitor and swiftly respond to a launch. Upon returning from London on Saturday, Lee went straight into a top-level meeting with his Cabinet.

South Koreans working at two joint economic zones in North Korea were urged to be cautious due the “grave” situation on the Korean peninsula, said Kim Ho-nyeon, a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Some 500 South Koreans who work at factories in the northern border town of Kaesong will return to South Korea, he said.

___

Associated Press writers Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, Shino Yuasa in Tokyo, Foster Klug in Washington and John Heilprin at the U.N. contributed to this report.

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