North Korea has placed a three-stage rocket on the launch pad at a new, more sophisticated facility facing the Yellow Sea. It plans to launch what it calls an earth observation satellite as early as Thursday. There are also indications the reclusive and impoverished country is preparing for a third nuclear weapons test, as well.
Satellite imagery, taken last week, shows piles of dirt near a newly excavated tunnel entrance at North Korea's nuclear test site. A summary of a South Korean intelligence report accompanying the photos, obtained by VOA says the excavation at the Punggye-ri test site is in its final stages.
Analysts say Pyongyang wants to demonstrate to the world that it is capable of carrying out a nuclear test at any time.
Meanwhile, North Korea, at a separate site, has placed on the launch pad what it is calling the Unha-3 rocket. It appears virtually identical to the three-stage liquid-fueled ballistic missile it fired over Japan three years ago.
The United States, South Korea, the European Union and Japan are condemning the planned launch, saying it will clearly violate United Nations sanctions forbidding Pyongyang from utilizing ballistic missile technology.
Jang Myong Jin, the general manager of the launch site, says North Korea has a sovereign right to carry out a space launch.
Speaking to correspondents taken to the launch site, Jang says, in recent talks between his government and U.S. officials, North Korea made clear that its moratorium pledge applied to long range missiles, but not satellites.
Senior research fellow Baek Seung-joo, at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul, says Pyongyang's scientists have had a lot of time since their last attempt to put a satellite into space to greatly improve their ballistic missile capabilities.
Baek says North Korea, in the interim, has likely exchanged technology with Iran which has made three successful satellite launches. And, Baek says, the North Korean engineers seem to have a high level of confidence their third attempt will succeed.
Additional international sanctions were imposed on North Korea following its second missile launch and nuclear test in 2009.