North Korean Rocket Readied for Expected Launch

Analysts say the close-up view of a North Korean rocket on the launch pad and the satellite it is supposed to carry into space has allowed them to make some fresh conclusions about the reclusive and impoverished country's technical capabilities.

Video images and photographs taken during a media viewing of what North Korea is calling the Unha-3 rocket have given defense analysts and the intelligence community a fresh opportunity to assess the state of Pyongyang's ballistic missile development.

An initial conclusion: North Korea seems to have made significant progress since its failed attempt, three years ago, to conduct a three-stage launch and put a satellite into orbit.

The April 2009 launch was of a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, believed to be of Soviet design with a third stage of Chinese origin. The second and third stages fell into the Pacific Ocean about 3,800 kilometers from the launch site, far short of the missile's goal.

Retired vice admiral Hideaki Kaneda of Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force says there is no doubt that what is on the Sohae launch pad has military applications.

Kaneda, in an NHK interview, noted an apparent cluster of four rocket engines housed in the first stage. He described that as worrisome because four nozzles in the first stage leave no doubt that this rocket could be utilized as a long-range ballistic missile, capable of not only reaching Japan, but also the U.S. mainland.

South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-suk was asked about the apparent advances observed this week.

The defense ministry spokesman says that because South Korean officials did not visit there, they are not in a position to comment on the technical capabilities of the North Korean rocket.

North Korea says the third stage is to carry an earth observation satellite into a north-south orbit.

Although the solar-powered Kwangmyongsong-3 would pass over South Korea in every orbit, analysts do not consider it to be a spy satellite, but rather on the level of what college students around the world have been able to build in recent years.

Among those studying the new images of the satellite is the manager of the satellite technology research center at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejung.

Kang Kyung-in tells VOA the North Korea satellite does not appear to be built for long-term duty nor is it technologically advanced.

Kang says it seems like it is capable of capturing simple photographs and low resolution video and transmitting them back to North Korea.

Officials here say South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a 30-minute telephone call, Tuesday morning Asia time, agreed the planned North Korean launch would be a “grave provocation.” The two countries are among those terming the 30-meter rocket a violation of United Nations sanctions prohibiting Pyongyang from utilizing ballistic missile technology.

Both South Korea and Japan are vowing to attempt to shoot down the North Korean rocket if its veers off course and over their territories.

North Korea has notified relevant international aviation and maritime authorities that it will conduct the launch between Thursday morning and next Monday.

Officials in North Korea say the launch is timed to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, the late Kim Il Sung.

A further concern to the international community is recent satellite imagery showing activity at North Korea's nuclear test site. That has led South Korean military and intelligence officials to speculate that the North may follow the missile launch with its third nuclear test within the next several months.

The two Koreas have technically remained at war since a 1953 armistice halted three years of bloodshed.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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