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Tension Rising As North Korea Rocket Launch Approaches

South Korea's nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac (center)
(RFE/RL) -- North Korea's plans to launch a long-range rocket in the next few days is raising international tensions, with several countries, including the United States, threatening consequences if the mission goes ahead.

Pyongyang says the mission is peaceful and that its purpose is to put a communications satellite into orbit. But critics say the launch masks a test of a long-range ballistic missile.

The rocket at the center of the controversy is already on its launch pad at the North's Musudan-ri base, and reports say fueling has started.

The North has said the launch of the multistage Taepodong-2 vehicle will come between April 4 and April 8.

In South Korea, demonstrators took to the streets of the capital Seoul, calling for the rocket to be shot down.

South Korean nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac, speaking on April 1 to journalists, said there will certainly be some form of international reaction, but he refrained from any reference to military action.

"This is a launch that the international community has been trying to stop," he said. "If there is a launch, it's clear that a response by the international community is inevitable. There will be a response from the UN Security Council."

'At This Point'

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said Washington will take the case to the United Nations, which banned further North Korean missile tests following the initial, unsuccessful flight of a Taepodong-2 in 2006.

But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week that the United States has no plans to shoot down the rocket "at this point," as he put it. He did say, however, that Washington believes Pyongyang's long-term goal is to develop an intercontinental missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Military experts say the Taepodong-2, even in its present early state of development, might be capable of reaching the U.S. state of Alaska.

Wi, South Korea's nuclear envoy, pointed to the security risks the North's missile program creates, considering that Pyongyang has already demonstrated its nuclear capability by exploding a nuclear device in 2006.

'That the North is developing a long-range delivery capability and is trying to show it off is a problem for our security and is an element that is a hindrance to the international community and the regional community's peace and stability," he said.

The North has pledged to counter any diplomatic or military moves over the rocket launch with retaliation in kind. The North Korean Foreign Ministry says that any attempt to bring the issue to the United Nations would be a "hostile act." It says that, in response, Pyongyang would break off its participation in the six-party talks over its nuclear program.

Those talks have been suspended since December as a result of disagreements over how to check that Pyongyang is disabling its nuclear facilities, as promised.

'I Have Issued An Order'

Similarly, on the military level, the North has threatened immediate retaliation if "even the slightest effort" is made to intercept the coming rocket flight.

Japan lies under the possible flight path of the mission, and there is worry there that in the event of a malfunction the whole rocket or parts of it could fall on Japanese territory. Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said last week said that the country's military will not allow that to happen.

"I have issued an order, according to our Self-Defense Forces Act, to prepare to destroy any object that might fall on Japan as a result of an accident involving a flying object from North Korea," he said.

Hamada appears to have chosen his words carefully, in that he did not say that the Japanese defense forces would attack the rocket for simply passing over Japan -- only if it broke up in flight.

But it's not clear if the North Korean military would consider that as an "interception," and take its own steps in reply.

With agency reports