North Korea has placed a long-range rocket on its firing platform, another sign the aspiring nuclear power has not been deterred by international warnings to cancel the launch, Reuters reported on Monday (see GSN, April 6).
Foreign journalists were permitted to view the rocket at the recently finished Sohae launch facility, not far from the boundary line with China.
The Stalinist state asserts the Unha 3 rocket would carry an Earth-observation satellite into space sometime between April 12 and 16. The United States, South Korea and Japan, believing the event instead to be another test of North Korean ballistic missile technology, have condemned the launch as illegal under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
"Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un made a very bold decision, that is why you are allowed to be this close to the launch site," Sohae facility director Jang Myong Jin said to reporters on Sunday.
The Unha 3 is to travel down the western coastline of the Korean Peninsula. Japan is concerned the rocket could veer over its territory and has readied land- and sea-based missile interceptors for a possible intercept attempt.
"They have come pretty far on the question of range, but they still need a lot to resolve in the precision technology needed for (warhead) re-entry and guidance," an unidentified South Korean military official told Reuters.
Seoul has warned the rocket effort demonstrates Pyongyang is advancing toward the ability to send nuclear weapons across continents, according to previous reporting.
The Unha 3 is expected to be a modified version of the Taepodong 2 long-range ballistic missile, which Pyongyang is presumed to have last test-launched in spring 2009. The rocket is thought to have a design flight distance of up to 4,160 miles, which would bring large portions of Alaska within striking range, and to be able to carry warheads weighing as much as 2,200 pounds.
Most analysts are not worried the rocket will veer off course and crash into a city, according to Reuters. The primary threats are that the rocket's navigation system could malfunction and send it flying above China or that its self-destruction programming would not perform as intended should it leave its charted flight path, North Korean missile specialist Markus Schiller said in Germany.
"There's always a residual risk of course, that several things might go wrong and lead to unforeseen disaster ... but this risk is very low, actually approaching zero," Schiller stated by e-mail to Reuters.
“The worst-case scenario is it strays into China or South Korea if the rocket goes out of control," an unidentified South Korean government rocket technology expert said (Duncan/Kim, Reuters
, April 9).
The North is anticipated in the near future to initiate fueling of the Unha 3 rocket -- the last action that must be accomplished before a launch, an anonymous South Korean official told the Yonhap News Agency on Monday.
“North Korea has only fueling remaining after completing the installation of three stages of boosters on a launchpad. Fueling is expected to begin soon, considering it usually takes two to three days,” he said (Yonhap News Agency
, April 9).
China, Japan and South Korea on Sunday agreed to exert “maximum efforts” to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning the rocket launch, but the Asian nations were unable to reach agreement on what actions to take following the anticipated event, Kyodo News reported.
In a trilateral foreign ministers meeting in China, Tokyo and Seoul seem to have been unable to persuade Beijing to condone any new Security Council sanctions that might destabilize the North Korean regime.
“We were able to increase our common views. But frankly speaking, I would not say the three countries completely shared the same view,” Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said to reporters following the meeting.
Beijing is North Korea’s longtime ally and strongest international defender; it fears internal instability in its northern neighbor could spill across the border and upset China’s economic development.
“Despite the international community’s unified call on North Korea to restrain itself, North Korea appears determined to force through the launch plan,” the Japanese Foreign Ministry quoted Gemba as saying to his Chinese and South Korean equivalents.
“The international community, including the Security Council, should cooperate and respond as appropriate,” he said (Kyodo News/Japan Time
s, April 9).
The Japanese government has positioned Patriot missile units in and around Tokyo and on islands in Okinawa Prefecture; it has also fielded Aegis-equipped missile destroyers, possibly in the East China Sea, Agence France-Presse reported.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has authorized the military to attempt to intercept the Unha 3 if it appears to be a danger to Japan.
“We have taken the best possible measures that we can think of at this point,” Senior Vice Defense Minister Shu Watanabe said to NHK television (Agence France-Presse I/Jakarta Globe
, April 8).
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in a bilateral meeting on Saturday with his South Korean opposite, Kim Sung-hwan, said their respective governments should work together and through the United Nations to limit the possibility of a security crisis with North Korea, the Korea Times reported.
An anonymous South Korean official told Yonhap this indicated China would view the rocket firing as a breach of Security Council rules (Kim Young-jin, Korea Time
s, April 8).
Despite the unified front of Tokyo, Seoul and Washington against the launch, there is not much that can tangibly be done to strong-arm North Korea, AFP reported.
“After various governments finish beating their chests, we have to find a way to talk to the North Koreans,” Asia Foundation expert Peter Beck said in Seoul. “The United States has no available options: there are no (further) meaningful sanctions that can be employed.”
Observers see a number of reasons why North Korea is likely to launch its rocket, including that it would enhance the prestige of the regime under new leader Kim Jong Un.
“The rocket launch will be used as an expensive firework to celebrate its becoming a ‘powerful and prosperous state,’” Korea National Diplomatic Academy expert Yun Duk-min said. The launch is also intended to coincide with the birthday of regime founder Kim Il Sung, who was born on April 15, 1912.
“Kim Jong Un … needs some feats to show off his leadership that may send shivers down the spine of enemies,” Yun said to a Seoul audience last week (Agence France-Presse II/Straits Time
s, April 9).