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Regional Forces on Standby as N. Korean Launch Window Opens

South Korean officials of the Incheon Maritime Police Agency monitor a situation room while on high alert in preparation for North Korea's planned launch of a Unha-3 rocket, in Incheon, South Korea, April 12, 2012.

Military forces in South Korea and Japan are standing by Thursday on the first day of a five-day window for a North Korean rocket launch that Pyongyang says will carry a weather satellite into space.

The likelihood that the launch will come Thursday dimmed as midday arrived with no sign of new activity at the launch pad outside a cloud-covered Pyongyang. North Korean officials had said the launch will come between Thursday and Monday, and between the hours of 2200 and 0300 UTC.

Japanese appeal

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda repeated his nation's appeal for Pyongyang to cancel the launch but said Japanese forces are ready to shoot the rocket down if it strays over Japanese territory.

"In case it happens, we are on full alert. Up to the last minute, we urge North Korea to refrain from launching," he said.

S. Korea on alert

South Korea has also put its forces on heightened alert and threatened to shoot down the rocket if it appears likely to crash into South Korean territory. The Philippines, located near the planned splashdown site of the rocket's first stage, has diverted airline flights and ordered fishermen to avoid the area.

Paek Chang Ho, chief of North Korea's launch command center, told reporters Wednesday that fuel was being loaded into the rocket in one of the final steps before launch. The journalists, including a reporter with VOA's Korean service, were able to view the activity by video, which was fed live to the remote command center.

Weather satellite

Paek said a weather satellite has been installed on the rocket, which is set for launch sometime between Thursday and Monday, depending on weather conditions. The video showed a tarpaulin draped over the top of the rocket, making that claim impossible to confirm.

Paek also stressed that North Korea opened the launch command center to journalists to correct any claims it is testing a long range ballistic missile. He pledged to share imagery sent back from the North Korean satellite with other countries.

The scheduled launch has angered many of North Korea's neighbors, which see the action as a ploy to test a ballistic missile that could later be fitted with a nuclear warhead.

Launch purpose

Ryu Gum Chol, deputy director of North Korea's space program, told VOA the only purpose of the launch is space exploration.

"It seems to me that your worries are unfounded," Ryu said. " I reckon that the timing is important now, and you will know everything once you attend the April 15 centenary [of the birth of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung]. The rocket we have developed is only for the purpose of space exploration, so to claim it is for ballistic missile development is illogical."

US doubtful

But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that the launch has raised doubts about North Korea's claims that it wants to improve ties with its neighbors and the United States.

U.S. officials fear that Pyongyang may be planning to follow the launch with what would be its third underground nuclear weapons test. Satellite intelligence photographs made available to VOA and other news organizations this week show evidence of preparations for such a test.

North Korea's launch plan has derailed a recent agreement with the United States, under which Pyongyang agreed to suspend its nuclear weapons and missile programs. The United States was to have delivered 240,000 tons of badly needed food aid to the North.

Clinton said Tuesday that by launching the rocket, Pyongyang was breaking that agreement as well as violating a U.N. Security Council ban on any North Korean ballistic missile testing.

But Ryu said there was no clause in the deal with the United States banning a peaceful satellite launch.