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S. Korea Prepares For 'Almost Certain' Rocket Launch by North

The final hours may be ticking away to a long-range rocket launch by North Korea. International leaders are preparing a diplomatic response even as their governments focus on tactical matters of safety in the final hours of countdown before the potential liftoff.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called it "almost certain" Friday that North Korea would launch a long-range rocket soon, possibly on Saturday.

North Korea advised international agencies weeks ago it would put what it calls a "communications satellite" into space on board a long-range rocket sometime between Saturday, April 4, and next Wednesday, April 8.

Weather forecasts say the North Korean region of the launch site will be cloudy and windy on Saturday. At this point, forecasters say it is impossible to say whether the launch will take place or not solely on the basis of weather patterns.

South Korea's Unification Minister Hyun In-taek says the government is preparing basic safety measures based on the possibility of a launch. He says between April 4 and April 8 - Pyongyang's announced launch dates - South Korea is detouring flights to avoid the path of the rocket or any falling debris from it.

Unification Ministry Deputy spokeswoman Lee Jong-Ju says ministry departments will begin working in emergency mode from Saturday. South Korea is also taking steps to communicate with, and ensure the safety of, a limited number of South Koreans visiting the North.

North Korea describes its satellite launch as a peaceful space research mission. South Korea, Japan, and the United States view it as a provocative move aimed at improving Pyongyang's ability to deliver warheads at long distances. Experts say the technology of launching a satellite, and that of offensive ballistic missiles, is practically identical.

About 100 South Korean protesters set fire to North Korean flags Friday in Seoul to condemn the North's launch plans.

South Korea, Japan, and the United States say they will seek a response from the United Nations Security Council if the launch takes place. However, permanent, veto-holding members of the council, Russia and China are seen as unlikely to back new sanctions against the North.

South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kwon Jong-rak says Seoul will consider other strategic steps. He says if North Korea launches, the South will strongly consider becoming an official participant in the Proliferation Security Initiative - an international cooperative for preventing the transport of missiles and weapons of mass destruction.