SEOUL (Reuters) -- North Korea is making final preparations for a rocket launch the United States said could come as early as April 4, pushing ahead with a plan widely seen as a disguised long-range missile test.
Analysts said the launch helps North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shore up support after a suspected stroke in August raised questions of his grip on power, and bolsters his hand in using military threats to wrangle concessions from global powers.
"They're doing everything consistent with the launch of a space vehicle on April 4," the U.S. defense official told Reuters on April 2 on condition of anonymity.
"We consider the situation as being imminent," a South Korean government official said.
North Korea has said it will send a satellite into space between April 4-8 and insists it has the right to do so as a part of a peaceful space program.
South Korea and Japan say the launch is a disguised test of the long-range Taepodong-2 missile, which is designed to carry a warhead capable of reaching U.S. territory but which blew apart about 40 seconds after launch during its only test flight in July 2006.
The United States, South Korea, and Japan are pushing for UN punishment for the launch they say violates UN resolutions that ban further ballistic missile since the previous Taepodong-2 test and the North's only nuclear test in October 2006.
Several Security Council diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity that no one was considering imposing new sanctions for the launch but the starting point could be discussing a resolution for the tougher enforcement of earlier sanctions.
China, the closest thing North Korea can claim as a major ally and veto-wielding Security Council member, is almost certain to block any new sanctions as well oppose the tightening of existing sanctions that are supposed to halt most arms sales and the import of luxury goods, analysts said.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso told Chinese President Hu Jintao during the G20 summit in London that if the launch went ahead, there should be a new U.N. resolution, the Yomiuri newpaper reported in its online edition.
Hu showed "some understanding" of Japan's concerns but did not give a clear reply, the paper said.
Brian Myers, a professor at the South's Dongseo University who is an expert on the North's state ideology, said leader Kim needs these to show defiance and military strength to compensate for his state's economic failures.
"When you are unable to feed your people, if you cannot give them food, you have to at least give them pride. If he is unable to do that, then he does face a legitimisation crisis," he said.
Japan has sent missile-intercepting ships along the rocket's flight path said it could shoot down any debris such as falling booster stages that threatens to strike its territory.
Japan, the United States and South Korea said they have no plans to shoot down the rocket unless it threatens their territory. Experts said escalating tensions could threaten North Asia, which accounts for about one-sixth of the global economy.