North Korea confirmed on Tuesday it was planning an imminent satellite rocket launch that would amount to another major breach of UN resolutions following its nuclear test last month.
The International Maritime Organisation said it had received a shipping warning from North Korea of its intention to launch an earth observation satellite between February 8-25.
The dates suggest a launch aimed at coinciding with the birthday on February 16 of late leader Kim Jong-Il, father of current leader Kim Jong-Un.
Although Pyongyang insists its space programme is purely scientific in nature, the United States and its allies insist such launches are aimed at developing an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of striking the US mainland.
UN resolutions forbid the North from any use of ballistic missile technology, and imposed sanctions following its last rocket launch in December 2012.
If the notified launch goes ahead, it would be a further slap in the face of the international community which is struggling to find a united response to the North Korea’s January 6 nuclear test.
Challenge to US
In particular it throws down a defiant gauntlet to the United States which has spearheaded efforts to draft a tough UN resolution with harsh sanctions in response to what was the North’s fourth nuclear test.
There had been widespread speculation in recent weeks regarding an imminent rocket test, after satellite images showed increased activity at the North’s main Sohae satellite launch station.
Since early 2013, North Korea has been upgrading the Sohae launch complex to handle larger, longer-range rockets with heavier payloads, but most experts say Pyongyang is still years from obtaining a credible ICBM capability.
“North Korea is still a long way off from being able to strike the US mainland,” Siegfried Hecker, one of the foremost authorities on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, said in a recent interview.
“It has only had one successful space launch. It needs a lot more, but it has made a large effort in that direction,” Hecker said.
Although the 2012 rocket launch was successful in putting a satellite in orbit, experts say the North still faces the technical challenge of developing a missile and warhead that can withstand the heat of re-entry.
Briefing reporters in Washington last week, US defence officials said any rocket launch was seen as a developmental threat.
“Our concern is that when they do a space launch, it happens to be the same components that can be used in an ICBM,” one official said.
Confirmation that the North is planning a fresh launch is likely to put more pressure on China, Pyongyang’s chief diplomatic protector.
Beijing has been resisting Washington’s push for tougher sanctions on the North, but a rocket launch would bolster calls for China to bring its maverick neighbour into line.
China’s top envoy on the North Korean nuclear issue, Wu Dawei, arrived in Pyongyang for talks on Tuesday, just hours before the rocket launch notification was issued.
While its patience has been stretched to the limit by Pyongyang’s refusal to curb its nuclear ambitions, China’s overriding concern is a collapse of Kim Jong-Un’s regime and the possibility of a US-allied unified Korea on its border.
US secretary of state John Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing last week and said they had agreed to mount an “accelerated effort” to resolve their differences over a UN resolution condemning the North’s latest nuclear test.
But Kerry acknowledged that the two diplomats had not agreed on the “parameters of exactly what (a resolution) would do or say”.
North Korea said last month’s test was of a powerful hydrogen bomb -- a claim dismissed by most experts who argued that the yield had been far too low for a full-fledged thermonuclear device.