North Korea has begun preparations for injecting fuel into its space rocket ahead of its announced plan to fire the suspected modified long-range ballistic missile later this month, a high-ranking South Korean military insider told the Yonhap News Agency on Friday.
The South has detected a heightened degree of movement around the fuel holding area at the North's Dongchang-ri missile complex. "As soon as (the North) completes injecting fuel into the storage [tank], it is expected to supply the rocket with fuel," the anonymous insider said. "Fuel injection could begin Saturday."
A picture taken on Thursday by a South Korean satellite reveals a tanker and an air compressor located close to the launchpad. There were also a variety of automobiles parked close to the control facility as well as a number of transport vehicles parked close to the rocket assembly center.
Recent snowfall could have impeded the rocket launch preparations at Dongchang-ri but not necessarily enough to cause North Korea to miss the beginning of its stated launch window of Dec. 10 through Dec. 22, the Associated Press reported.
A blast of snow on Monday might have forced the North to suspend its launch preparations, said 38 North image analyst Nick Hansen in a report for the website operated by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Hansen examined pictures taken on Tuesday by the commercial satellite imagery firm GeoEye.
The images also suggest the North had not finished placing all three rocket stages on the launch platform by Wednesday. News reports in South Korea indicated the work had been completed by that point.
"Pyongyang's rocket scientists can't be happy about the increased technical risks of a wintertime test, but certainly appear to have taken every precaution necessary in order to launch the rocket on time," according to 38 North editor Joel Wit.
The Kim Jong Un regime is understood to wish to carry out the rocket launch close to the one-year anniversary of the Dec. 17, 2011, death of longtime ruler Kim Jong Il.
The head of U.S. forces in the Pacific on Thursday asserted the purpose of the rocket launch was not to place a satellite in orbit, as North Korea has claimed, but to test illegal long-range ballistic missile technology, AP separately reported.
The North wishes to "demonstrate to the world that they have the capacity to be able to build missiles and have missile technology to be able to use it in ways of their choosing down the road," Adm. Samuel Locklear told journalists at a Defense Department media briefing.
The aspiring nuclear power's four previous space launches, which are all widely interpreted to have been ballistic missile tests, were all unsuccessful.
Locklear said it was not known if Pyongyang had fixed the malfunctioning systems that caused another Unha 3 rocket in April to break apart shortly after liftoff.
The admiral said the U.S. Navy is positioning its warships in the Asia-Pacific to provide optimal "situational awareness" and to signal U.S. support to regional friendly governments. Three or four U.S. warships with antimissile systems are being deployed to the Western Pacific, two unidentified U.S. officials informed the news agency.
Locklear said there are "indications" the North could fire its rocket as early as Dec. 17, The Hill reported.
The U.S. and South Korean Combined Forces Command on Thursday announced it had put its forces on higher alert in response to the looming North Korean rocket launch, Yonhap reported.
Separately, the Japanese government on Friday issued directions for the nation's military to use antimissile technology to eliminate falling rocket debris should it endanger the island nation's territory, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
"All the preparations [for a possible intercept] will be completed one day before the earliest launch date," Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto told reporters.
Patriot Advanced Capability 3 antimissile systems have been positioned in three areas, including Tokyo.
Should the launch occur -- in direct contravention to international demands -- Japan intends to push for a new U.N. Security Council resolution that punishes Pyongyang, government insiders told Kyodo News. The Japanese government would additionally weigh enhancing national economic penalties targeting North Korea.
At present, Japan does not have a seat on the 15-member Security Council.
Envoys said Security Council veto holder China might block any new resolution that substantially increases sanctions against the North, Kyodo separately reported. However, the Security Council presidential statement that condemned the April rocket launch for violating council restrictions against the North's use of ballistic missile technology did warn of the U.N. body's "determination to take action accordingly in the event of a further D.P.R.K. launch or nuclear test."
The Security Council in its April statement said "any launch that uses ballistic missile technology, even if characterized as a satellite launch or space launch vehicle," would constitute a "serious violation" of previous measures from the U.N. body.
Seoul and Washington are said to be examining options for strengthening their domestic sanctions targeting North Korea, including the possibility of targeting financial institutions that do business with the regime.
An anonymous South Korean government source told the Dong a-Ilbo newspaper that Pyongyang might order another underground atomic blast after it fires its space rocket, Bloomberg reported.
Signs of technical preparations for a third nuclear blast at North Korea's test site have been detected since the spring.