As North Korea gears up for its planned rocket launch, Seoul, Tokyo and the West continue to lambast Pyongyang, with experts saying the plans are aimed at putting Washington to the test.
The countdown has begun for a North Korean rocket launch, expected for later this week. Officials in Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Washington have all expressed concern over the North's plans, saying it would violate UN resolutions that ban Pyongyang from testing long-range missile technology.
"North Korea's launch of a missile would be highly provocative, it would pose a threat to regional security," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday.
Washington's call for a halt to the launch has been repeated by allies South Korea and Japan. Both East Asian states say they will shoot down the rocket if it strays too close to their territory.
Merely a weather satellite?
But Pyongyang maintains it has the right to peacefully explore outer space. Officially, the regime of Kim Jong Un, who assumed power this past December, says it plans to put a weather satellite into orbit. The launch is a part of celebrations to mark the 100 th birthday of late founding leader Kim Il Sung on April 15 th. The North says the send-off will take place in the days surrounding the anniversary.
Foreign reporters taken to the North Korean launch site say they were shown the satellite that will be attached to the rocket. But analysts say even with a mounted satellite, the launch still serves two purposes.
"North Korea is launching the satellite with a military objective," says Baek Seung Joo, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government think tank in Seoul. "The objective is not to put a satellite into orbit, it's instead to extend its missile range."
'Iran may have shared rocket technology'
Baek says the North's rocket appears to be similar in design to one it launched in 2009. Pyongyang says it successfully put a satellite into space at that time, although most observers say the rocket fell far short of reaching space and plunged into the Pacific Ocean. But Baek says three years is enough time for North Korea to improve its technology. He points to recent, successful satellite launches in Iran as an indication that North Korea might get it right this time around.
"It is likely that North Korea and Iran have shared rocket technology," Baek says.
Baek explains that the 2009 rocket only reached about half the distance of the 6,700 km needed to create an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). He believes North Korea will hail its upcoming launch a success if this rocket travels 5,500 km.
But the possibility that North Korea could test another nuclear device is overshadowing the planned rocket launch. Officials from South Korea's intelligence agency say that satellite images show signs of preparation that were similar to underground nuclear explosions that Pyongyang carried out in 2006 and 2009.
Pressuring for food aid?
Baek Seung Joo says whether or not the North is readying for another detonation, it is playing the nuclear card to pressure the US for food.
"It's going to force the United States and the international community to decide between providing food aid or it will conduct a third nuclear test," he says.
The perpetually hungry state is said to be facing a food deficit that could affect hundreds of thousands of people.
Washington had pledged in February to deliver nutritional aid to North Korean mothers and children, but has since called it off due to the rocket test plans. The State Department's Victoria Nuland says a third nuclear test "would be equally bad if not worse" than a rocket launch. Nuland did not comment on whether Washington shares the South Korean government's suspicions on North Korea's intentions.
South Korea's suspicions may be politically motivated
Some observers question if Seoul's intelligence agency got it right. Over the past three years, predictions that Pyongyang would carry out a third detonation have come and gone.
"South Korea does not have a good track record," according to John Delury, assistant professor of East Asian studies at Seoul's Yonsei University. "You find a pretty low batting average for these things."
Delury says political manipulation could be involved. South Koreans will vote on April 11th in National Assembly elections. The ruling conservative party faces strong opposition from candidates who favor better relations with North Korea. Delury says given previous instances, it's not out of the question that politicians are attempting to drum up fear ahead of the polls.
Putting Washington to the test
But even if there is no nuclear test at hand, North Korea still has one more card up its sleeve. Pyongyang has not rescinded its invitation to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities. And this could back the US into a corner.
"If you are the United States, what do you do at that point? Do you say, 'no, we don't want you to open up your program to monitors?' Do we say, 'no we absolutely refuse to deliver food aid?'” Delury says.
He adds this will put to test Washington's previous statements that it doesn't link humanitarian aid to the North's weapons programs.
Author: Jason Strother
Editor: Sarah Berning