- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - North Korea told two U.N. agencies it plans to launch a communications satellite between April 4-8 _ an unprecedented disclosure seen as trying to fend off international worries that it is really a test of long-range missile technology.

The notification to the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization underscores the communist regime is intent on pushing ahead the launch in an attempt to gain greater leverage in negotiations with the United States, analysts say.

North Korea specified two “danger” zones _ one close to Japan _ in its disclosure of the satellite launch plan. Pyongyang gave the U.N. agencies coordinates where parts of its multiple-stage rocket would fall, making it clear the projectile would fly over Japan toward the Pacific.

One of the zones is in waters off Japan’s west coast, less than 75 miles (120 kilometers) from its northwestern shore, according to the agencies. The other lies in the middle of the Pacific between Japan and Hawaii.

Though it is an international norm for countries to provide such specifics as a safety warning ahead of a missile or satellite launch, it was the first time the communist North has done so.

The U.S. and other governments have said any rocket launch _ whether missile test or satellite _ would violate a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution banning North Korea from ballistic missile activity.

The U.N. agencies said Thursday that North Korea informed them by letter of the launch details the day before. It is the first time the regime has offered a safety warning ahead of a missile or a satellite launch, according to the South Korean government.

“They want to do the launch openly while minimizing what the international community may find fault with,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University. “The launch will earn North Korea a key political asset that would enlarge its negotiating leverage.”

Countries planning a space launch or missile test normally notify maritime or aviation authorities so aircraft and ships can be warned to stay away from affected regions.

But North Korea did not do so ahead of its purported satellite launch in 1998 over Japan and a failed 2006 test-flight of a long-range missile, drawing international condemnations.

Few buy Pyongyang’s claim that it needs a communications satellite when one of the nation’s stated top national goals is addressing chronic food shortages.

Use of mobile phones, the Internet and international calls are tightly controlled in the totalitarian North.

“They might put a transistor on the rocket” and claim it was a satellite launch, said Hong Hyun-ik, a North Korea expert at the security think tank Sejong Institute, who is skeptical of the North’s intentions.

Officials and experts have said even if a satellite is launched, the North’s ultimate goal is to test and demonstrate its missile capabilities.

U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said Tuesday the North may be planning a space launch, but said the technology is no different from that of a long-range missile and its success would mean the country is capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

“If a three-stage space launch vehicle works, then that could reach not only Alaska and Hawaii but part of what the Hawaiians call the mainland and what the Alaskans call the lower 48,” he told a Senate panel.

South Korea, Japan and the United States have warned the North against any rocket launch.

“It’s provocative, it’s not helpful and it’s destabilizing,” U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Thursday. “We think the North needs to desist, or not carry out this type of provocative act, and sit down … and work on the process of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that a launch “will threaten the peace and stability in the region.”

Analysts say a rocket launch would increase the stakes and, more importantly, the benefits the impoverished nation might get from negotiations with the U.S. and other countries trying to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons program.


Associated Press writers Kelly Olsen, Kwang-tae Kim and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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