SEOUL — North Korea said Saturday that it intends to use a three-stage rocket to launch a satellite into orbit later this month, a move that the United States and its allies describe as a de facto long-range missile test that violates Pyongyang’s international commitments.
In an announcement carried by its state-run news agency, the North said that the launch would take place between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22, with the rocket traveling south between the Korean Peninsula and China on a “safe flight path.”
(Uncredited/AP) - This Nov. 26, 2012 file satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows the Sohae Satellite Launch Station in Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, North Korea. North Korea said it will launch a long-range rocket between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22.
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A South Korean Foreign Ministry statement called the launch a “grave concern.”
The North’s fourth attempt to send a satellite into orbit comes just eight months after a high-profile failure in which the carrier rocket disintegrated some 90 seconds after liftoff. This latest attempt also complicates the Dec. 19 South Korean presidential election, in which both leading candidates have called for rapprochement with the North but said little about how that would work if tensions increase.
If North Korea succeeds with its launch, the family-run police state will become a more urgent security concern for President Obama, as well as for the soon-to-be-chosen new leaders in Seoul and Tokyo. Sending a three-stage rocket into orbit would represent the North’s most significant step yet toward developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, although key hurdles would remain. North Korea’s satellite-carrying rocket depends on technology similar to that used in a long-range missile.
The Obama administration condemned the planned launch Saturday, saying it would be “a highly provocative act” that would violate North Korea’s international obligations. Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, North Korea is prohibited from conducting any test or launch using “ballistic missile technology.” The country has also conducted two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009.
“Devoting scarce resources to the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles will only further isolate and impoverish North Korea,” State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said.
Security analysts say the North could be using the launch as a way to firm up support for leader Kim Jong Eun, who is overhauling the country’s massive military with a handpicked lineup of new officers. In power for nearly a year, Kim has done little to break with the policies of his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, who built a country that sends political dissenters to gulags, wobbles under food shortages, channels money to the military and uses the occasional satellite launch as a way to show off a “thriving nation.”
According to North Korea’s state media, two of its satellite launch attempts — in 1998 and 2009 — were successful, placing into orbit devices that can forecast weather and transmit revolutionary songs. But international tracking data indicate that both satellites dropped into the sea. The North also conducted a long-range missile test in 2006, which failed about 40 seconds after liftoff and was never described as a satellite launch attempt.