North Korea Begins Placing Rocket on Launch Platform, Images Suggest

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Satellite pictures suggest that North Korea has placed the initial segment of a rocket to its launch platform ahead of a planned firing later this month, the Associated Press reported on Friday (see GSN, April 5).

The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said in an assessment that the section of the Unha 3 rocket could be hidden from site within the enclosed support structure for the platform at the Dongchang-ri installation.

Other indications that the launch is looming include the seeming finishing of fueling operations and the clearing of material around the support structure and launch platform, satellite pictures taken on Wednesday indicate.

“If past launches are any guide, at least the first stage would have to be present at the gantry if the North Koreans are going to keep to the timetable for the scheduled launch,” according to institute visiting fellow Joel Wit, who edits its “38 North” website.

Separate pictures taken from space on Saturday also indicated prelaunch operations; these included automobiles seen on the rocket firing platform and a crane “directly over the mobile launch platform, the position necessary to erect the rocket,” according to Allison Puccioni, an image specialist at Jane’s Defense Weekly (Foster Klug, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, April 6).

The launch facility’s fuel holding space has been filled with liquid propellant, ITAR-Tass reported on Friday. Once the one-to-two day process of placing the Unha 3 on the launchpad is complete, fuel would be pumped into the rocket, according to South Korean news organizations.

Rocket fueling is expected to take place one to two days prior to the firing of the Unha 3, which Pyongyang has said will take place sometime between April 12 and 16 (ITAR-Tass, April 6).

Puccioni in an analysis concurred that recent satellite pictures of the site in western North Korea indicate the rocket should be fully installed on the launchpad in a few days, the Korea Herald reported on Thursday.

“The level of activity at the launchpad and tower indicates that the rocket should be in in place within days,” according to Puccioni.

The United States and a number of other countries have condemned the rocket launch as illegal under U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban the Stalinist state from conducting ballistic missile operations. Pyongyang insists it has the right to conduct the launch, which it claims is aimed at placing an Earth-observation satellite into orbit.

The North has extended invitations for eight nations to send observers to witness the launch. The United States, Japan and others are urging foreign states to reject the request. Other invitees include space specialists from China, India and the European Space Agency, according to the report (Kim Yoon-mi, Korea Herald, April 5).

The U.S. Defense Department is giving intense attention to the looming rocket launch, spokesman George Little said on Thursday.

“The North Koreans will be violating [U.N.] Security Council resolutions if they move ahead with such a launch and we shall call on them, as other countries have, not to launch the missile,” he said to reporters.

The coming launch “is very serious business. …We’re monitoring it closely,” Little said, adding: “We understand the impact it could have on regional stability.”

“We’re working very closely with our Republic of Korea allies as well as our Japanese allies to monitor what’s happening with respect to this missile launch. We hope it doesn’t happen. But if it does, we’ll be ready to track it,” he said (U.S. Defense Department release, April 5).

The United States and its partners could collect a windfall in rare intelligence about the North’s evolving missile capabilities from the rocket launch, including whether the aspiring nuclear power has advanced its ability to fire long-range ballistic objects. Military analysts are expected to particularly watch for evidence that foreign missile components were used in the launch, according to recent reporting.

The Japanese military as of Thursday had fielded in four areas of Okinawa Prefecture land-based Patriot Advanced Capability 3 interceptors that could be fired if Tokyo concludes the rocket represents a threat to the nation’s territory, the Xinhua News Agency reported. South Korea has also indicated that it is prepared to fire on the rocket (Xinhua News Agency/China Daily, April 6).

North Korea on Thursday said any an attempt to shoot down the rocket would be “an act of war,” the Yonhap News Agency reported.

Any entity that “intercepts the satellite or collects its debris will meet immediate, resolute and merciless punishment,” the North’s Peaceful Reunification of Korea Committee said in a statement carried by the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency (Yonhap News Agency, April 6).

The top diplomats from China, Japan, and South Korea are slated to gather on Sunday in the Chinese city of Ningbo to discuss the rocket launch and other issues, Kyodo News reported.

The issue of how to respond if Pyongyang carries out the launch is expected to be a contentious issue. Tokyo and Seoul traditionally favor stronger punishments for North Korean provocations while Beijing has sought to protect its neighboring ally from international recriminations.

The Chinese government notably has not joined its partners in the stalled six-party talks on North Korean denuclearization — Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States — in condemning the launch as a violation of Security Council rules.

The envoys from Seoul and Tokyo are expected to press their Chinese counterpart to have Beijing lean harder on Pyongyang to call off the rocket launch. Chinese academics said though Beijing is fully cognizant that the rocket firing is prohibited by the Security Council, it will refrain from stating so publicly so as not to aggravate North Korea (Ko Hirano, Kyodo News, April 6).

The North has reportedly dispatched four submarines to sea. The South Korean military has responded by telling its naval commanders they are permitted to respond with force should they come under attack, the U.S. News and World Report reported on Thursday.

North Korea’s compact Yono-class vessels and its larger Sang-O-class submarines have the ability to escape detection by a significant number of advanced sonar systems.

Former Bush administration North Korea policy specialist Victor Cha said, “If the South is fired upon again by the North, there is no question in my mind that South Korea will respond. In the past, South Korean ship commanders were required to go up the chain of command for approval to shoot. After the 2010 [Cheonan sinking] incident, commanders were given a standing order to retaliate” (U.S. News and World Report, April 5).