North Korea's February satellite launch suspected to be missile test

International experts suspect that the country's satellite rocket launches are meant to disguise ballistic missile tests banned by UN sanctions.

Korean Central News Agency/Reuters/File
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches an army rocket firing drill in this undated file photo released by the country's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on November 3. The image's authenticity could not be independently verified.

North Korea plans to launch a four-year observation satellite into orbit in February, a UN agency announced Tuesday, intensifying worries over the reclusive country's long-range weapons programs soon after it claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb in January.

According to a spokeswoman at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), North Korea will launch an Earth observation satellite for weather forecasting purposes some time between February 9 and 25, between 7 a.m. and noon, Pyongyang time. The IMO is a United Nations agency based in London. North Korea also notified the International Telecommunications Union, another UN agency based in Geneva, according to Kyodo News. 

North Korea last launched a "Bright Star," or "Kwangmyongsong" satellite in 2012, claiming it was for weather forecasting or communications. Satellites, however, are launched with long-range rockets, and critics of the country's nuclear weapons program allege that the satellites are an excuse to test long-ranged missiles, going against the UN's sanctions on North Korea.  

Pressure to increase sanctions has intensified since January 6, when North Korean state television announced it had conducted its fourth-ever nuclear test, a violation of existing sanctions. US officials studying local air and seismic activity at the time of the event say that North Korea may have tested components of a hydrogen bomb, but most likely not a finished hydrogen device, as claimed by the state.

News of the satellite also comes days after South Korea's Defense Ministry warned that the North may have been preparing a long-range ballistic missile test, based on satellite imagery of a known rocket launch site. 

Experts believe that North Korea possesses some nuclear weapons, but debate whether it has the technology to attach a nuclear warhead to ballistic missiles and send them far overseas. Ballistic missile tests are banned under UN sanctions, but satellite launches are commonly viewed as disguised attempts to test North Korea's new missile technologies. 

South Korean officials who analyzed debris from the North's 2012 satellite launch determined that the missile's range might be up to 6,200 miles, putting the western coast of the United States within reach.

The recent spate of tests has led Secretary of State John Kerry to put renewed pressure on China to rein in North Korea's nuclear program; the relatively small country's massive neighbor is one of its only allies. Roughly 25 million people are believed to live in North Korea, versus about double that in South Korea, and more than 1.3 billion in China.

"From North Korea's perspective, a schism between China and the U.S. is the ideal situation," Kim Han-kwon, a professor at South Korea's National Diplomatic Academy, told the YTN news network, as reported by CBS. Calls for greater sanctions increase risks to the North Korean regime, and Chinese leaders fear that a government collapse across the border would bleed into their own country. 

"Because of the strategic interests at stake, China will be forced to further embrace North Korea," Professor Kim said. 

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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