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Fears grow over new North Korea missile launch

North Korea's neighbors are bracing themselves for the defiant regime again attempting to test-fire a rocket as part of events to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of the "Dear Leader."

The governments of South Korea, Japan and the United States are closely monitoring preparations in North Korea for what appears to be a new effort to launch a ballistic missile, although Pyongyang insists it is merely exercising its right to deploy harmless communications satellites via a conventional rocket.

Images on the web site of commercial earth-imagery company DigitalGlobe Inc. apparently show, "a marked increase in activity at North Korea's Shoae (West Sea) Satellite Launch Station.

"This activity is consistent with launch preparations as witnessed prior to the failed April 13, 2012 launch of the Unha 3 (Universe or Galaxy 3) space launch vehicle carrying the Kwangmyongsong 3 (Bright Lodestar 3)," it added.

Photo taken April 8, 2012shows the Unha-3 rocket at its launch pad at the Sohae Satellite Station in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province in the northwest of North Korea. In a rare move, Pyongyang allowed foreign media organizations, including Kyodo News, a firsthand look at preparations under way for what it says is the launch of a long-range rocket for putting a satellite into space, which is viewed by the United States and its allies as a disguised test of ballistic missile technology. Photo: MaxPPP/Kyodo pixel

The US announced a suspension of food aid after the launch of Unha 3

"Given the observed level of activity noted of a new tent, trucks, people and numerous portable fuel/oxidizer tanks, should North Korea desire, it could possibly conduct its fifth satellite launch event during the next three weeks," the analysts concluded.

The timing of Pyongyang's latest effort to launch what it claims is a rocket - but neighboring nations insist is a disguised test launch for ballistic missile - is deeply significant.

Significant timing

"I would say that there is a very high possibility that North Korea will go ahead with a launch, in spite of any protests or warnings that the international community might make in advance," Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an expert on North Korean affairs, told Deutsche Welle.

"We are coming up on the one-year anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il and his son and heir will want to stage some major events to mark that date," said Professor Shigemura.

Kim, the man revered in the North as The Dear Leader after he assumed power from his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994, died on December 17 last year, apparently suffering a fatal heart attack.

Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be 29 years old, has spent the last year trying to consolidate his power with the various military and political factions that are constantly vying for power behind the scenes, as well as attempting to show a more human and compassionate face to his hungry and cowed populace.

But tradition will require that the anniversary of his father's death is marked in a spectacular fashion, believes Professor Shigemura.

"Kim has had a difficult first year as leader and he really needs a victory," he said. "Being able to launch a missile to mark his father's death would be an impressive way of doing that."

Soldiers shout as they march past the podium during a military parade to celebrate the centenary of the birth of North Korea founder Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang April 15, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)

Experts fear the North could launch a rocket to commemorate the death of Kim Jong Il in December

The scientists charged with achieving that, however, will be keen to avoid the disaster that befell the previous attempt to get North Korea's space program off the ground.

On April 13, a multi-stage rocket was fired from a new launch facility in the northeast of the country, but suffered some sort of failure in its third-stage separation and fell into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and China just 90 seconds after the launch.

Pyongyanghad claimed the indigenously developed rocket was to put an Earth-observation satellite into orbit and to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the nation, and went ahead with the launch in the face of strong international criticism.

Disguised missile test

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo countered with the claim that the launch was a thinly-disguised test-firing of a ballistic missile and was in contravention of United Nations Security Council resolutions imposed after Pyongyang conducted previous missile launches and two nuclear tests.

Within days, the UN had condemned the launch and the US cancelled plans to provide 240,000 tons if food aid to the impoverished nation - which spent an estimated 850 million US dollars on the launch but relied on 400,000 tons of rice from the World Food Program to stave off starvation for around 2 million people in the spring.

Pyongyangretaliated by refusing to grant international monitors access to its nuclear facilities and angrily denounced the UN resolutions.

"The US and its followers committed a hostile act of violating the DPRK's right to [carry out a] satellite launch by abusing the United Nations Security Council again," the state-run KCNA news agency reported.

A view of the North Korea's Scud-B missile (C) and USA Hawk surface to air missiles (front) at the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea (Photo: EPA/JEON HEON-KYUN +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk)

North Korea opened fire on South Korean Yeonpyeong island in 2010

"The US ... after hatching all sorts of dastardly tricks to prevent the peaceful nature of the DPRK's satellite launch from being confirmed objectively and persistently terming it a long-range missile launch, imposed upon the UNSC its brigandish demand that the DPRK should not be allowed to launch a satellite for peaceful purposes.

"Nothing can stand in the way of the DPRK's space development for peaceful purposes," it added.

A further major consideration for the regime in Pyongyang is the imminent launch of South Korea's first domestically engineered rocket, which is scheduled for this week. The Naro-1 vehicle was due to be launched in late October, but a fault with an engine component pushed the schedule back. Fired from the Naro Space Center, on an island off the southern tip of the peninsula, the rocket is designed to put a satellite into orbit.

Should the South Korean launch be a success, the regime in the North would inevitably feel obliged to demonstrate its own technological prowess.

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