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North Korea Issues Threats in Final Countdown to Rocket Launch

North Korea has dramatically sharpened its rhetoric towards South Korea and Japan, in what are believed to be the final days before it launches a long-range rocket. The United States and its allies may have only limited options in responding to the launch.

Major South Korean media outlets quote unnamed government officials as saying North Korea has mobilized jet fighters to guard the site of a rocket launch expected in the days ahead.

At the same time, Pyongyang sharpened its rhetoric regarding the launch. A statement from the North's official Korean Central News Agency warns "if hostile forces make any slight move to intercept" the planned launch, the North's military will retaliate with force.

Last month, North Korea informed international agencies it would be launching a satellite for space research, sometime between this coming Saturday and next Wednesday. South Korea, Japan and the United States say the test is a disguised push to advance the North's ballistic missile technology.

The trajectory of the rocket is expected to pass over Japan. Tokyo says it will shoot down the rocket, if it seems like it will threaten Japanese territory. The North Korean news agency says Pyongyang would respond to such an action by "mercilessly dealing deadly blows," not only at Japan's anti-missile facilities but at "other major targets" as well.

Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Relations, says North Korea knows the United States and its partners have limited options to deal with the launch.

"There's no downside, from the North Korean point of view, in trying this," he said.

The American position and that of its its regional partners is that the launch will violate a United Nations prohibition on North Korean ballistic missile tests, passed after the North tested a nuclear weapon. However, by skillfully packaging the launch as a space research mission, North Korea may have made the launch less offensive to two of its historical allies with veto power at the U.N. Security Council.

"They know, in the end, there's no appetite for meaningful sanctions on the part of the Chinese and the Russians. Without the Chinese and the Russians, any calls by Japan, South Korea, or the U.S. aren't going to go very far," said Chinoy.

Chinoy says the challenge for President Obama is to come up with a response to the launch that appears resolute, but does not damage the possibility of diplomatically engaging North Korea about its nuclear weapons.

"If the United States, after this launch, decides to move back toward negotiation - which I think is a sensible and logical thing to do - the optics are going to look very much like the North coerced Washington into coming back to the table, after its display of muscle flexing," said Chinoy.

On the sidelines of the G20 economic summit in London, President Obama is meeting with Asian leaders about a possible response to the launch.