North Korea said Monday that engineers have found a technical problem in the controversial rocket and have extended the window until the end of December. The rocket would put a satellite in orbit, and had been set to launch as early as this week.
"Scientists found a technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module of the rocket carrying the satellite and decided to extend the launch period up to Dec. 29,'' the KCNA news agency quoted a space agency spokesman as saying.
The Unha-3 rocket launch had been scheduled for somewhere between December 10 to December 22 to coincide with the first anniversary of the death of former North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il.
Japan's Missile Defenses
Standard Missile 3 Interceptors
Patriot Missile Interceptors
Ship launched missile
Used against short and intermediate range ballistic missiles
Cost per missile is $6 million to $9 million
Launched from land-based mobile launchers
Used against ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and aircraft
Cost per missile is $3.5 million
Experts in Seoul and Tokyo speculated that technical glitches may have forced scientists to postpone the launch of the finicky three-stage rocket, its fifth attempt since 1998.
"The problem was detected when the North was about to inject propellant into the long-range rocket," Chae Yeon-seok, a senior researcher at South Korea’s Korea Aero Space Research Institute, told VOA's Korean Service.
"They can either change the rocket entirely or reassemble the present 3-stage rocket and run tests on it for a day or two. They can then fill up the rocket with propellants and launch it," Chae said.
North Korea is banned from carrying out any missile or nuclear-related tests by U.N. resolutions imposed in 2006 and 2009 after it conducted unsuccessful nuclear tests. A third rocket launch, in April, also ended in failure and was condemned by the Security Council.
The United States, Japan and South Korea view the tests as a platform to develop a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. But Pyongyang insists this launch is simply to put a weather satellite in orbit and that it is exercising its right to the peaceful use of space technology.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Monday his government would maintain vigilance.
Tokyo has threatened to shoot down the missile if it goes off course and has deployed missile interceptors in preparation, including three Aegis destroyers armed with SM-3 missile interceptors reported to be headed for the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan.
Patriot missile interceptors later arrived at Okinawa island, which lies under the missile's projected flight path. Patriot missiles also were positioned behind the defense ministry in Tokyo.
Cambodian Prime Minister and ASEAN Chairman Hun Sen urged North Korea to scrap a planned rocket launch, saying it would bring "fear and tension" to the region.
"In the name of the ASEAN chair, I appeal to North Korea to postpone the launch forever," Hun Sen said Monday in a speech on national radio. "The launch will bring no benefits, but only fear in the region and tension."
Japan's ambassador to Cambodia, Kuroki Masafumi, told VOA the North Korean move threatens not only his country but the entire region.
"It is important that many countries make that appeal to North Korea to prevent them from launching the missile and to respect all the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council," Masafumi said.