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North Korea Announces Rocket Launch Under Preparation

An undated photo issued by the official North Korean news agency shows the launch of missiles that was witnessed by North Korea's leader during his visit to a unit of the Korean People's Army.
(RFE/RL) -- North Korea says "full-scale preparations" are under way to launch a rocket that will put a communications satellite into orbit.

The announcement did not say when the launch will be made.

But North Korean television announced that "When this satellite launch proves successful, the nation's space science and technology will make another giant stride forward in building [our nation's] economic power."

The emphasis is thus set squarely on a peaceful space program that North Korea claims to be developing. But not everybody believes that.

They say the coming mission may instead be a test of the latest version of the Taepodong-2 guided missile, which is believed to be capable of reaching Alaska, if not the California coast.

With this in mind, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood reminded the communist North of its obligations under a United Nations resolution.

"We've been very clear from here about where we stand with regard to those missiles," Wood said. "It certainly would be a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718 that prohibits North Korea from engaging in ballistic-missile activities."

The prohibition was imposed on North Korea after that country shocked the world by conducting a nuclear test explosion in 2006.

Inter-Korean Politics

South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee and Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan went further than Washington, saying that that the technology of missiles and rockets is so similar that a launch of either would violate the UN resolution. In both cases, the South's security is threatened, they said.

In separate comments, Foreign Minister Yu said Seoul is "closely watching the situation in North Korea. I hope they wouldn't test-fire the long-range missile because it will undermine stability and security in the region."

Yu was speaking during a visit to Beijing, and he appeared to be hinting that China should use its influence to dissuade the secretive regime of Kim Jong Il from missile adventurism.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu did, in fact, make an appeal for restraint by all parties on the Korean Peninsula at a news briefing in Beijing, but he refrained from singling out the North's missile-building program as a threat to peace.

"Maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula is in the interest of all the relevant parties," Ma said. "We hope the relevant parties can do things that are conducive to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the region."

But the North would not stage such a rocket launch without calculating the full impact it could have on international and inter-Korean political relations.

Analyst Ham Hyeong-pil, of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, tells RFE/RL that Pyongyang is hoping for big economic rewards, especially from the United States, if in the future it agrees to curtail its missile program.

Ham says that the North Korean government "wants to make a sign, to give a sign to the United States government, to the Obama administration, in order to maximize its profits later at the negotiating table."

As to inter-Korean relations, Ham notes that the North's announcement comes just a day ahead of the first anniversary of the election of the South's President Lee Myung-bak.

Lee has pursued a hard-line policy toward the North, ending many provisions of the previous long-standing "sunshine" policy, including that of unconditional aid to Pyongyang. Ham says the timing of the announcement is designed to pressure the South to soften its stance.