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Report: Kim Jong Il Tours Rocket Launch Region

  • Kurt Achin

North Korean media says leader Kim Jong Il has toured the northeast province where Pyongyang says it plans to launch a satellite soon. South Korean leaders are deeply concerned about the looming launch.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday that leader Kim Jong Il has been touring the country's northeastern North Hamgyong province. It is the birthplace of his mother - and the site of an increasingly likely launch of a long-range rocket.

North Korea announced Tuesday it planned to launch a "communications satellite" from its most advanced facility, at Musudan-ri in North Hamkyong. South Korean and American defense officials suspect Pyongyang's rhetoric about space research is a cover for a test of a ballistic missile capable, in theory, of reaching U.S. territory.

Joseph Bermudez, a senior analyst for the Jane's Defence Group, is one of the world's top analysts on North Korea's ballistic missiles. He says satellite images have shown stepped up activity near the possible launch site. However, he says, so far, North Korea seems not yet to have erected the missile and the necessary support structure needed for a launch.

"Once we see a system placed upon a launch pad... then we know that we can say it is imminent. Now, in this case 'imminent' could be anywhere up to 21 days, you know, three weeks," said Bermudez.

North Korea's last test of a long-range missile was in 2006, sparking United Nations sanctions and a resolution calling for no further missile launches.

South Korea has repeatedly warned the launch of a missile would violate that resolution and likely trigger even more sanctions. Bermudez says North Korea's description of the launch as an exercise in space research could complicate the international community's response.

"It would be difficult to say that one nation does not have the right to explore space, and that others do... Once you clear a certain altitude, you are not longer in international airspace. You're in space, which no one has rights over," he said.

Bermudez says it will be difficult to know North Korea's intention until the launch.

"Ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles actually travel on different trajectories. So, you would know, relatively quickly after launch, watching it, whether it is a space launch or a ballistic-missile test launch," he added.

Analysts say the launch is likely to draw a firmer response if the rocket's passes over Japanese territory, as a North Korean medium-range missile test did in 1998.