Seoul (The Korea Herald/ANN) - North Korea has installed the first stage of its long-range rocket on the launch pad, defying growing international warnings against what is suspected as a missile test, reports said yesterday.
The communist country is now expected to complete preparations at its launch station in the western town of Dongchang as early as the beginning of next week. It declared Saturday that it will fire an earth observation satellite into orbit between December 10 and 22.
"This means North Korea has entered the process for launching a long-range missile," Yonhap News quoted an unnamed military source as saying.
Foreign Ministry officials said they could not confirm or comment. But they note that an early liftoff seems difficult due to bad weather.
It will need about three days for the regime to assemble all three phases of the rocket, military and intelligence officials forecast. Engineers would then set up support structures, power cables and other devices before injecting oxidants and fuel for the next three to four days.
The apparent progress effectively flouts the international community's mounting calls on Kim Jong-un's fledgling regime to refrain from testing intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology.
It marks the second launch attempt under the 20-something leader who took power a year ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. Its April launch ended in failure and earned him international condemnation.
The latest attempt is seen to cherish the late despot's precepts to build a "strong, prosperous and great nation" by successfully firing an ICBM as the first anniversary of his death approaches.
Seoul, Washington and Tokyo criticised the Saturday announcement, saying it constitutes a violation of UN Security Council resolutions banning any nuclear or missile activity by the North. The UK and Germany issued similar commentary.
China, the reclusive state's prime ally and patron, expressed concern over the looming missile liftoff, while defending the North's right to the peaceful use of outer space.
"We hope all relevant parties will do that which benefits peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, hope all sides will respond calmly and avoid exacerbating the situation," Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement.
North Korea informed the US of its upcoming launch via the so-called New York channel last week, two Foreign Ministry officials confirmed. Though the two countries have no official diplomatic relations, the North's mission to the UN has long been a contact point.
The regime has conveyed a "Notice To Airmen" to Japan and other neighbours. The rocket's first stage is predicted to fall in the Yellow Sea (also known as West Sea) and the second in waters off the Philippines' east coast.
But it has yet to notify the International Maritime Organisation or International Civil Aviation Organisation as it has done before previous launches.
South Korea's military is considering notching up its watchcon alert system to level 2 from 3.
Japan has also begun deploying a surface-to-air missile scheme in addition to its armed forces on standby to shoot down the rocket in case it falls on the country's territory.
Later in the day, Vice Foreign Minister Ahn Ho-young met with US ambassador Sung Kim to discuss the next steps. Lim Sung-nam, special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, also held separate meetings with the Seoul-based ambassadors of China, Japan and Russia.
Lim, the chief negotiator to the six-party denuclearisation talks, will embark on a three-day trip to Washington on Thursday for closer consultations with his US counterpart Glyn Davies and other officials.
"Our first and foremost goal is to make diplomatic efforts to prevent the North from pushing ahead with the plan. If it ends up firing, it will need to pay its dues," a senior ministry official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
If Pyongyang decides to go ahead, it will likely face a fresh round of crippling sanctions.
The "trigger" clause installed in its April statement requires an automatic gathering of the Security Council, making way for a swift sanctions resolution. Though the statement has no binding force, the provision "expresses its determination to take action accordingly in the event of a further DPRK launch or nuclear test," the council said then.
DPRK is an acronym of the North's official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The plan comes at a sensitive time when South Koreans are scheduled to elect their president on December 19. It will likely complicate the new Seoul government's efforts to defrost cross-border relations in conjunction with US President Barack Obama's second-term administration.
With its own election of prime minister set for December 16, Tokyo has postponed director-general level talks with the North slated to open in Beijing tomorrow over Japanese abductees.
Furthering tension is Pyongyang's suspected cooperation with Tehran, another pariah state with relentless atomic ambitions.
Japan's KyodoNews cited a Western diplomat as saying that four Iranian defence government officials and industry experts have been staying in the North since late October to help with its missile and nuclear development.
Leaked US diplomatic cables from 2010 showed that Washington officials allege that Iran has sourced ballistic missile parts from the North. The two countries clinched an agreement to cooperate in science and technology in September.