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Super Bowl surprise? Why North Korea may be launching its rocket early

North Korea could launch as early as Sunday. Theories abound for why the country changed the time frame and what consequences it could face.

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    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a ceremony to award party and state commendations to workers and scientists linked to the successful hydrogen bomb test on January 13, 2016. N. Korea has moved up its launch window for a supposed satellite missile, according to S. Korean officials.
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A North Korean rocket launch could be as early as Sunday – during the US Super Bowl, according to South Korean and Japanese officials.

Japan and South Korea have announced that North Korea has moved up the launch window for its missile launch to sometime this coming week. Originally, North Korea had told the International Maritime Organization (IMO) it would launch a rocket carrying an observation satellite into space sometime between Feb. 8 and Feb 25.

The launch date change follows weeks of international pressure to cancel the launch, especially from South Korea, Japan, and the United States, who cite fears that North Korea is using the satellite launch as an excuse to test new long-range missiles. 

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“This argues even more strongly for action by the UN security council and the international community to impose real consequences for the destabilizing action that the DPRK has taken, is taking, and to raise the cost to the leaders through the imposition of tough additional sanctions,” Daniel Russel, assistant US secretary of state for East Asian & Pacific affairs, said at a news briefing Friday.

Predictions about North Korea’s early launch started as early as Friday. A US think tank, 38 North, saw signs of early fueling activity, after reviewing satellite images, of tanker trunks at the North Korean launch site. 

South Korean analysts say the early launch date could be an effort to launch before a special North Korean holiday, according to USA Today. The birthday of late dictator Kim Jong Il is on Feb. 16. Kim Jong-un could be trying to honor his father’s birthday by completing the rocket launch before it. North Korean leadership is known for being sensitive to symbolic gestures.

An official of the Korea Meterological Administration offered a more logistical rationale for the launch: clear skies. South Korea’s weather agency expects rain or snow in the launch area on Monday, Thursday, and the following Saturday, according to the Associated Press.

The Christian Science Monitor earlier reported on the prestige associated with the North Korean space program. In the tense rivalry between North and South Korea, being seen as first in any achievement could be politically advantageous for the North's leadership.

“I think its desire to launch satellites is real," David Wright, co-director and senior scientist with the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the AP. "This is partly for prestige, and it was of course a huge deal that it put something into orbit before South Korea.” 

What is also uncertain is what repercussions North Korea will face for further breaking from the international community.

On Friday, President Barack Obama spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping by telephone about the approaching launch.

"The leaders emphasized the importance of a strong and united international response to North Korea’s provocations, including through an impactful UN Security Council Resolution,” the White House said.

However, a recent UN panel found that the current framework of economic sanctions against North Korea are largely ineffective, The Japan Times reported.

“Given the stated intentions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its continued efforts to enhance the scope of its nuclear and missile programs, as well as to seek international acceptance and legitimacy for these prohibited programs, there are serious questions about the efficacy of the current United Nations sanctions regime,” the UN report says.

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