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North Korea announced today that it was ready to go ahead with a long-range rocket launch, making clear that it is moving forward with its plans in defiance of widespread condemnation from the international community, including Russia, and a plea for calm from neighbor and ally China.
Pyongyang insists that the rocket is merely launching a weather satellite and that it is within its sovereign rights to do so. The West believes the rocket launch is a thinly veiled ballistic missile test – a violation of United Nations sanctions meant to prevent North Korea from developing a missile capable of bearing a nuclear weapon.
Reuters reports that the launch will take place sometime between April 12 and 16, pegged to celebrations of the 100th birthday of deceased former leader Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.
"The launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite is the gift from our people to our great leader, comrade Kim Il-sung, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, so this cannot be a missile test," said Ryu Kum-chol, vice director of the space development department of the Korean Central Space Committee.
Regional airlines and ships are on alert, and Japan has deployed its anti-missile systems, vowing to shoot down the rocket if it crosses over its airspace as one did previously, Agence France-Presse reports from Pyongyang.
The Associated Press reported last week that the US has few options for punishment if North Korea goes ahead with the rocket launch. China would likely block any attempt to ratchet up sanctions via the UN Security Council out of fear of destabilizing its volatile neighbor.
It's also unclear what the repercussions of putting further pressure on Pyongyang might be; a Security Council condemnation of a 2009 rocket launch prompted North Korea to expel UN nuclear inspectors, abandon disarmament talks, and conduct a second nuclear test, AP reports. The buildup to this launch has erased hopes in the West that Kim Jong-un, who only assumed office at the end of 2011, might bring about change in the isolated, defiant country. It has also derailed a "food for nukes" agreement between Washington and Pyongyang.
At a nuclear conference in Seoul in late March, President Obama warned of "consequences" for Pyongyang if it went through with the launch, but his warning seemed to have no impact on North Korea's plans. A foreign ministry spokesman replied that the country would not give up its satellite launch and reiterated that it was both for peaceful purposes and within its rights as a sovereign state. Pyongyang's actions imply that it believes it can "get away" with the launch, The Christian Science Monitor reported after the conference.
The irony is the abiding sense that North Korea can get away with firing the rocket, despite all protests, on the calculated gamble that all rhetoric will fail to gain significant traction in the run-up to the US presidential election in November and South Korea’s election in November.
South Korean intelligence says that North Korea is also preparing what would be its third nuclear test, scheduled to happen after this upcoming rocket launch, Reuters reports in a separate story.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified intelligence source as saying North Korea was "clandestinely preparing a nuclear test" at the same location as the first two.
The source added that workers in the destitute North had been seen in commercial satellite images digging a tunnel in the northeastern town of Punggye-ri, Kilju County, in addition to existing mines believed to have been used for tests in 2006 and 2009.
"We have confirmed the (mining) work is coming to its final stage," the source was quoted as saying.