North Korea has spelled out in its clearest terms yet its intention to launch what it describes as a "communications satellite."
Official North Korean media broadcast a statement Tuesday from the country's science ministry saying "preparations to launch an experimental communications satellite are now making brisk headway."
North Korea has not specified when it will conduct the launch, which it says will carry a satellite named Kwangmyongsong 2 into orbit. North Korean media says the successful launch will be "another giant stride forward in building an economic power."
It is the clearest confirmation Pyongyang has given of U.S. and South Korean suspicions the North intends to launch a long-range rocket potentially capable of reaching the United States. South Korea's Defense Minister rejected the notion of a satellite launch Tuesday, saying the North was planning a ballistic missile test.
Baek Seung-joo, a senior researcher at the state-backed Korean Institute of Defense Analyses in Seoul, says Tuesday's announcement means a launch is now inevitable.
He says this is just like 2006, when North Korea carried out its nuclear weapons test after announcing it first. Now that they have gone public, he says, Pyongyang cannot help but conduct the launch in order to demonstrate its strong will.
North Korea's last test of its most advanced long-range missile was in 2006, a few months before the nuclear test. It triggered sharp United Nations sanctions in the form of United Nations resolution 1718, which also prohibited future missile launches.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry repeated warnings Tuesday that a North Korean launch would violate that resolution, and trigger more U.N. punishment.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, says the legality may not be so black and white.
He says labeling this a satellite launch may help Pyongyang skirt the United Nations resolution, which mainly dealt with ballistic missiles.
Joseph Bermudez, a senior analyst with Jane's Defense Weekly, is one of the world's top experts on North Korea's missile programs. He says even if the launch is a satellite, the North's missile program will benefit.
"So anything they could do to develop the Space Launch Vehicle is very much applicable to a ballistic missile program," he said. "Materials and technology for one could help the other."
Bermudez has said satellite imagery indicates the launch could come any day now. Many South Korean experts have a more conservative estimate, saying a launch is unlikely before next month.