SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korea appears to be moving quickly on its preparations for a long-range rocket launch, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Friday.
The communist country notified the International Maritime Organization and the International Telecommunication Union of its plan to launch an "Earth observation satellite" between February 8 and February 25, prompting neighboring countries to go on alert.
On Saturday, Pyongyang changed the dates to between Sunday, February 7, and the following Sunday, February 14.
Pyongyang provided the coordinates of the rocket trajectory as a warning to aircraft and ships at sea that debris from the launch would most likely fall back to Earth in the Yellow Sea off the Korean west coast and Pacific waters east of the Philippines.
The ITU said Friday that it had asked North Korea to provide additional information regarding the launch, noting that some “mandatory information” was missing.
Nevertheless, Moon Sang-gyun, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Defense Ministry, told reporters that with the announced launch window approaching, it was highly possible that North Korea had made “considerable progress” in the preparations.
“We believe preparations are underway at its launch site in Tongchang-ri,” Moon said without providing details.
A Japanese newspaper reported that North Korea might have started fueling a rocket, citing a U.S. defense official, an indication that the launch could come within several days.
Citing recent satellite imagery, the 38 North website, which focuses on North Korean issues, said Wednesday that increased vehicle activity had been detected at the launch site’s Horizontal Processing Building, a facility used to receive various rocket stages during previous launches. The activity is “suggestive of preparations for a space launch and supports North Korea’s announced launch window,” according to the website.
Analysts in Seoul said Pyongyang’s political interests would play a role in choosing the launch date.
“North Koreans clearly know the U.N. sanctions are coming in response to their nuclear test [in January]. They may fire the rocket to protest the U.N. action,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies.
Kim Jin-moo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a South Korean state-run institute, tied the launch date to the birth anniversary of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Kim’s birthday is February 16, which falls within the launch window. In April 2012, Pyongyang fired a long-range rocket to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung.
South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo presided over an emergency meeting Friday, in which he ordered military officials to maintain tight readiness against the North Korean move.
South Korean military officials said they would work with the U.S. and Japanese militaries to track the rocket that North Korea plans to fire. South Korea’s Unification Ministry said the government would be on alert during a three-day Lunar New Year’s holiday that starts Monday.
Obama, Xi Say North Korean Actions 'Provocative'
The White House said President Barack Obama spoke by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday about North Korea’s nuclear test last month and the planned launch.
They agreed that the planned launch “would contravene multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and represent another provocative and destabilizing action,” the White House in a statement. The two leaders also “emphasized the importance of a strong and united international response to North Korea’s provocation, including through an impactful U.N. Security Council resolution,” according to the statement.
The White House said Obama and Xi reaffirmed during their phone call that they were committed to the "complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
North Korea is believed to have over 1,000 Soviet-model missiles that can reach targets in South Korea and Japan. Last year, U.S. military authorities said they thought North Korea had the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit on a KN-08 long-range missile, although North Korea has not yet demonstrated this capability.
Jee Abbey Lee and Megan Duzor contributed to this report.