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North Korea may launch a long-range rocket as soon as this weekend, ratcheting up tensions on the divided peninsula. President Obama held talks Thursday on the topic with his South Korean counterpart at the G20 summit in London, where the two pledged a "stern, united" international response if the launch took place.
The isolated communist state has said it will send a satellite into space between April 4 and April 8. It has warned that any effort to stop the launch would be treated as an act of war. The US, Japan, and South Korea say the launch would violate a UN-ordered ban on such activity.
Citing a senior US military official, CNN reports that North Korea has begun fueling the missile and may be days away from firing it into space. A satellite image shows a rocket on a launch pad with a payload on its upper section that is covered up. North Korea has said that it wants to launch a "communications satellite," but the US says this is an excuse for testing a long-range missile that is capable of hitting Alaska.
Japan has mobilized its self-defense forces to shoot down any debris from the missile. North Korea said Thursday that it would respond with a "retaliatory strike" against Japan if it intercepted its satellite, Xinhua reported. The Army's General Staff said in a statement carried on an official newswire that North Korea would not allow anyone to interfere.
The statement reiterated that the exploration of the space for peaceful purpose is a legitimate right of a sovereignty country and the DPRK will not allow any interference from anyone to its launch. It also warned the United States to withdraw its missile guided destroyers... And South Korea should "refrain from disturbing the launch."
North Korea has also threatened to down US spy planes that are monitoring the preparations for the missile launch, The Washington Post reports. In a radio broadcast, the government said it would "relentlessly shoot down" US reconnaissance aircraft.
Early this week, the United States, Japan and South Korea deployed ships with U.S.-made anti-missile systems to monitor the launch. But if the North Korean missile does send a satellite into orbit, these three countries have said they have no intention of trying to shoot it down.
Experts who have examined recent satellite photographs of the rocket said its payload is probably a satellite-like device.
"I am estimating a satellite weighing between 330 and 880 pounds," said Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The BBC reports that Japan, the US, and South Korea are using the G20 summit to gather backing for possible UN Security Council action against North Korea. The president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, told Japan's prime minister, Taro Aso, that Russia and China needed to "join in a strong response." Analysts said Russia and China may argue that the wording of the UN's current ban on ballistic missile activity by North Korea does not apply to peaceful space launches.
In personal meetings in London on the eve of the G20 summit, Mr Lee stressed the need for a "united response" among world leaders to the threat from the North.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have already expressed their support.
"The launch will clearly constitute a violation of the Security Council resolutions, so it needs to be discussed in the appropriate manner in the council," said Osamu Sakashita, Japan's deputy cabinet secretary for public relations.
He said that Mr Lee told Mr Aso that Japan was entitled to shoot down the rocket if it misfires and endangers Japanese territory.
Mr. Obama, during his meeting with the South Korean president, showed support for Mr. Lee by praising his leadership and calling South Korea one of "America's closest allies and greatest friends," the Associated Press reports.
The Associated Press also reports that the March 17 arrest of two American reporters at the border between North Korea and China, whom Pyongyang has vowed to put on trial, could become a bargaining chip. Analysts said the regime can link this issue with its demand for direct talks with the US. The Obama administration has indicated that it wants to continue multilateral talks that group China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia, as well as the US and North Korea.
Writing in the English-language Korean Herald, a former South Korean ambassador to Washington argues that North Korea's inconsistencies on denuclearization are matched by abrupt policy changes by the US and South Korea. Yang Sung-chul warns that military tensions would rise if the US or other powers try to intercept the North Korean missile. The biggest concern is preventing any military escalation and keeping the six-party talks alive.
The long-term result of all this is oscillation between dialogue and deadlock, which has led to periods of uncertain engagement or heated confrontation. To break this sterile cycle, what is needed now is not more hot rhetoric about North Korea's missiles, but a commitment to steady, patient diplomacy that transcends changes in the political cycle. There is no quick fix in disentangling the Korean knot. Only persistence and commitment will do.