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Asia

Pyongyang missile plans condemned

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

Pyongyang announced on Saturday, December 1, that it would carry out its second long-range rocket launch this year sometime between December 10 and December 22 after a botched attempt in April.

The governments of South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States have condemned the country's plans, saying the launch would in reality be a ballistic missile test which would violate UN Security Council resolutions. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Saturday in a written statement: "A North Korean 'satellite' launch would be a highly provocative act that threatens peace and security in the region."

Tokyo responded to the announcement by starting the deployment of defense systems and putting its armed forces on standby. Japanese media reported Monday that Tokyo was also planning to deploy warships to neighboring waters. The Japanese government has also reportedly postponed talks with North Korea which had been due to take place this week.

China, the North's closest ally has also expressed "concern" over Pyongyang's plans, according to state media.

Pyongyang has insisted 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. showed last week, "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.

This Friday Nov. 23, 2012 satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows the Sohae Satellite Launch Station in Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, North Korea. (Photo: DigitalGlobe/AP/dapd)

DigitalGlobe analysis showed North Korean preparations at the end of November

"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 had 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 DW.

"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.

Family members of soldiers who were killed in North Korea's attack in 2010 on Yeonpyeong island, and South Korean millitary officers walk down after paying a silent tribute during the 2nd anniversary commemorative ceremony of artillery shelling on the island, at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul November 23, 2012. (Photo: /Kim Hong-Ji)

A November 2010 North Korean attack on the South killed two civilians and two marines

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."

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.

Pyongyang had 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.

Policemen watch as protesters, from conservative, right-wing and anti-North Korean civic groups, burn an effigy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un bound on a mock North Korean missile during a protest against the North's rocket launch near the U.S. embassy in Seoul April 13, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won)

North Korea's April launch met with angry protests in Seoul

Pyongyang retaliated 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.

"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.

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