North Korea readies missile, US warns
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North Korea readies missile, US warns

North Korea has put a long-range missile in place for a launch that the United States warned would violate UN sanctions already imposed on the reclusive state for past weapons tests.

world Updated: Mar 26, 2009 09:01 IST

North Korea has put a long-range missile in place for a launch that the United States warned would violate UN sanctions already imposed on the reclusive state for past weapons tests.

The South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo on Thursday quoted a diplomatic source as saying the North could technically fire the missile, which has the range to hit US territory, within four days. This is earlier than the April 4-8 timeframe Pyongyang has announced for what it says is the launch of a communications satellite for peaceful purposes.

The planned launch is the first major test for US President Barack Obama in dealing with the prickly North, whose efforts to build a nuclear arsenal is seen as a major security threat to one of the world's most economically powerful regions and has plagued relations with Washington for years.

The Chosun Ilbo quoted a diplomatic source in Seoul as saying a US reconnaissance satellite spotted the Taepodong-2 missile on a launch pad at North Korea's east coast Musudan-ri missile base on Tuesday.

"Technically a launch is possible within three to four days," the source said. Government officials in South Korea were not immediately available for comment.

On Wednesday, a US counterproliferation official told Reuters that North Korea had appeared to have positioned the rocket on its launch pad.

"It's possible that this signals an imminent launch, but the exact timeframe remains undetermined," the official said.

Another US official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said North Korea had placed together two stages of what is expected to be a three-stage rocket.

Once it has been positioned on the launch pad, North Korea will need several days to put fuel into the rocket.

Growing tension

The planned launch and the growing tension on the Korean peninsula is beginning to discomfort financial markets in the South.

"Certainly, if the North does launch the missile it will highlight South Korea's geopolitical risks," said Kim Young-june, a market analyst at SK Securities, but added that so far there had been little impact.

Seoul financial markets showed a muted reaction, with foreign investors net buying local shares despite a slight drop in the stock market's benchmark index.

"If they really fire something, it would definitely shake the financial market, but only briefly, as has been the case in many previous cases of provocation and clashes," said Jung Sung-min, a fixed-income analyst at Eugene Futures.

The United States, along with Japan and South Korea, have said the launch is a disguised test of the North's longest-range missile which could, in theory, carry a warhead as far as Alaska.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Mexico, said the launch would deal a blow to six-party international talks to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.

"We have made it very clear that the North Koreans pursue this pathway at a cost and with consequences to the six-party talks which we would like to see revived and moving forward as quickly as possible," she told reporters.

"This provocative action ... will not go unnoticed and there will be consequences," she said.

Clinton did not specify the consequences but repeated earlier warnings that a launch could put the issue before the U.N. Security Council for discussions on additional sanctions.


North Korea already faces a range of UN sanctions, some linked to its first nuclear test in 2006, and many analysts doubt new ones would get past China, the nearest Pyongyang has to a powerful ally, in the UN Security Council.

The six-party talks -- with the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- sputtered to a halt in December over disagreement on the process to check whether the North was disabling its nuclear facilities.

The first time North Korea launch its Taepodong-2 in 2006, it fizzled out seconds into the air.

A successful launch this time would prove a huge boost at home to leader Kim Jong-il, whose illness last year -- widely thought to have been a stroke -- has raised questions over his grip on power.

A recent photograph in North Korean media showed the normally portly Kim to have lost a lot of weight and looking slightly frail.

It would also be a snub to the South, which hopes to launch its own satellite later this year, and whose conservative government Pyongyang has railed against for ending a once condition-free stream of aid.

North Korea has given international agencies notice of the rocket's planned trajectory that would take it over Japan, dropping booster stages to its east and west.

Analysts said the notice was given to help the North argue that the rocket launch does not violate UN sanctions put in place after it test-launched a series of missiles in 2006.

"Even though the North Koreans have made a public declaration that this is a space launch, it would be in violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. "Therefore, we would, of course, oppose it."

He declined to say if the United States would take military action if the missile was launched.

Admiral Timothy Keating, head of US Pacific Command, has said the US military could with "high probability" intercept any North Korean missile heading for US territory, if ordered to do so.

Pyongyang has said any attempt to shoot down the rocket would be an act of war.

It has also said any attempt by the UN Security Council to punish it over a satellite launch would mean the collapse of the nuclear international disarmament talks.

First Published: Mar 26, 2009 08:59 IST