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N. Korea’s rocket launch plans boost tensions

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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.”

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.

The North, in a notable change, admitted its April 2012 failure and said that its scientists would look into the cause. In almost every way, the upcoming launch feels like a reprise: The same launch site, in the country’s northwest, is being used, and the satellite has the same name, Kwangmyongsong-3, as does the rocket, Unha-3.

A spokesman for the [North] Korean Committee for Space Technology was quoted in Pyongyang’s state media as saying that the North has analyzed its previous mistakes and improved the “reliability and precision of the satellite and carrier rocket.”

“The question is whether they have really gone through the engineering corrections or are they rushing it for political reasons?” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based security expert for the International Crisis Group. “That’s tough to say.”

The Saturday announcement did not come as a total surprise, because recent satellite images had shown a flurry of activity at the launch site, including the arrival, in trailers, of two stages of the rocket. Analysts in Seoul said the North was taking a risk with its launch because the move could anger China, its lone major benefactor, whose Communist Party last month promoted a new circle of leaders .

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, asked Tuesday about a potential launch, said only that “it’s the common responsibility and shared interest of all parties concerned to maintain the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.”

Experts offered mixed opinions on how, or whether, the North’s planned launch will color the South Korean presidential race, a close contest between ruling conservative party candidate Park Geun-hye and liberal candidate Moon Jae-in. The North has a strong preference for a liberal leader in Seoul, and Moon has called for a resumption of the aid and joint economic projects that were scrapped under current President Lee Myung-bak.

South Korean voters, though, are notoriously volatile, and last-minute opinion polls often misread the ultimate election winners. The North’s security threat could drive the appetite for a hard response to Pyongyang. It could just as easily build sentiment for a softer approach in Seoul that eases tensions.

A statement from Moon’s Democratic United Party described the North’s planned launch as a “long-range rocket test with a military purpose,” and it cautioned Park’s Saenuri Party from using this “occasion to raise security concerns favoring their election campaign.”

The Saenuri Party, in its own statement, called on Pyongyang to abandon its launch plan and accused it of trying to “influence the presidential election by creating instability in the Korean Peninsula and . . . [to] induce an election result favoring North Korea.”

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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