An expert assessment of new satellite surveillance pictures suggests that some rocket components have been transported to North Korea's long-range missile launch complex, CNN reported on Friday.
The website 38 North said the satellite images taken by DigitalGlobe on Nov. 23 and 26 of the Dongchang-ri missile site depict large transport vehicles containing the initial two stages of an Unha space rocket. The trailers are parked close to the primary facility for putting together missiles, according to the website, which is operated by Johns Hopkins University issue experts.
Photo analysis indicates technical preparations are at an advanced enough stage for a possible rocket firing in "the latter half of the first week of December, weather permitting," 38 North concluded.
While the United States is tracking the recent doings at Dongchang-ri, it does not hold the view that a fresh rocket launch will take place in the immediate future, unidentified U.S. defense insiders told CNN.
It would be unusual for North Korea to attempt a rocket launch during this time of year and also after such a short period following its last launch attempt in April, according to CNN.
The spring firing ended badly when the Unha 3 long-range space rocket broke apart minutes after liftoff, a high-profile embarrassment for the young Kim Jong Un regime. The international community rebuked Pyongyang for the launch as a violation of U.N. Security Council restrictions against the North's use of technology with ballistic missile applications.
In past rocket firings, the Stalinist state has given prior notice of "dates and hours for sea or air closure areas for the rocket's first and second stage impact areas," according to 38 North. "Since that has not happened yet, the window would appear to be closing for an early launch."
38 North imagery expert Nick Hansen posited that Pyongyang might merely be putting on a show in response to activities in South Korea, which this week delayed its own deployment of a space satellite. Both Koreas would like to join the elite group of advanced nations that have sent domestically produced satellites into space via indigenously developed rockets.
North Korean regime-controlled media on Friday did not make any obvious reference to any upcoming rocket firing.
South Korean officials on Thursday corroborated the reports on rocket firing preparations. Any such event in coming weeks would be viewed as Pyongyang's response to the South Korean presidential vote scheduled for Dec. 19, according to the Associated Press.
One-time U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy Victor Cha said Pyongyang has a history of carrying out aggravating responses to U.S. and South Korean election contests.
"If North Korea does carry out a launch, Beijing will not be happy," ex-U.S. State Department official Evans Revere said. "It flies in the face of China's request for North Korea to reduce tensions in the region."
Pyongyang is understood to want left-leaning South Korean presidential candidate Moon Jae-in to win the election next month. A rocket launch right before the voting might be construed among the populace as proof the conservative ruling party's hard-line policy on North Korea has been unsuccessful, AP reported.
Moon and the ruling party candidate, Park Geun-hye, have both indicated they would favor more engagement with Pyongyang.
"If indeed a new satellite launch is North Korea's next provocation, it will be an early test of South Korean candidate commitments to reopen dialogue with the North," Council on Foreign Relations Korea expert Scott Snyder stated in an analysis written earlier this week.
Other arguments in favor of a near-term rocket launch include the Dec. 17 first anniversary of the death of longtime North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il, who was succeeded by his youngest son, Kim Jong Un. The younger Kim might wish to commemorate the passing of his father with a high-profile display of national technical prowess.
The chances of a successful launch are questionable as not enough time has gone by to correct all the technical failings from April's attempt, according to experts. Given Pyongyang's secrecy about its missile and nuclear operations, the international community has little insight into what caused the failed launch as well as what corrective measures the North might have attempted since then, International Crisis Group analyst Daniel Pinkston said.
"They call it rocket science because ... it's hard. Everyone makes mistakes," he said.
Pyongyang might have no intention of launching a rocket at this time and is merely seeking to draw attention and gain leverage in any future engagement with Seoul and Washington, other issue analysts have suggested.
Washington, Beijing, and Seoul this week conducted separate senior-level diplomatic meetings around the North Korea issue, reported the Korea Herald.
The chief nuclear negotiators for China and South Korea held talks in Beijing while high-ranking U.S. and South Korean diplomatic officials met in Washington.
South Korean officials emphasized there was nothing out of the ordinary in their diplomatic meetings this week. "Now that the U.S. has completed its presidential election and China's new leadership has begun, we should naturally exchange opinions with each other, especially with the missile issue emerging," a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said to journalists.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party this week sent a number of senior leaders to North Korea. The chief of the party's publicity bureau, Liu Qibao, who was anticipated to tell Pyongyang to cancel any rocket launch plans.
Elsewhere, White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday said he did not know anything about a rumored secret trip made by senior Obama administration officials to Pyongyang in August, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
"That's not a question I can answer because it is news to me," Carney said.
A South Korean newspaper reported that the purpose of the trip, which was said to include a National Security Council member, had been to urge North Korea to refrain from provocative actions. The fact that Carney did not know about the event could either mean the news report was incorrect or that the trip was kept extremely secret, according to Yonhap.
In New York on Thursday , the U.N. Security Council panel with oversight on penalties targeting North Korea called on Pyongyang to refrain from launching any rocket, which would be seen as another strategic ballistic missile trial, Yonhap reported.