(CNSNews.com) – The United States hopes that talks tentatively scheduled for Friday will bring progress on the Iranian nuclear standoff, but the week looks set to be dominated instead by a crisis 4,000 miles further east, where North Korea’s plans to launch a “satellite” and Japan’s threats to shoot it down have ratcheted up tensions.
Adding to the concerns, a South Korean intelligence official said Sunday that activity monitored at the location of North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 signals that Pyongyang may be planning for a third.
The two previous nuclear tests drew widespread condemnation and increased the Stalinist regime’s isolation; a third would indicate that new leader Kim Jong-un intends to continue his father’s defiance of the international community.
At the weekend, North Korea allowed some international media to visit the site of the intended launch of what it says is an earth observation satellite. An Unha three-stage carrier rocket – based on the Taepodong-2 long-range missile – has been moved onto the launchpad.
It says it will shoot the satellite into orbit sometime between April 12 and 16 – coinciding with a conference of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea and the April 15 centennial of founding father Kim Il-sung’s birth.
Pyongyang insists that launching the Kwangmyongsong (Bright Star)-3 satellite is part of a peaceful space program, but doing so is a clear violation of a 2009 U.N. Security Council resolution which demands that North Korea not conduct “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”
The planned rocket launch also flies in a face of a Feb. 29 U.S.-North Korean agreement
in which Pyongyang pledged to honor a moratorium on “long-range missile launches” and nuclear tests, to suspend uranium enrichment, and to admit U.N. weapons inspectors in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid.
Experts say launching a satellite into orbit unquestionably tests and advances long-range missile capability. The U.S. has long accused Pyongyang of working – with Iranian help – to develop the ability to fire a ballistic missile, with a nuclear or conventional warhead, that could reach Alaska and eventually the U.S. west coast.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan have all urged North Korea not to go ahead. South Korea has put its military on heightened alert and Japan has sent warships equipped to track and destroy ballistic missiles in flight to its southern waters near the declared flight path. Mobile surface-to-air Patriot missile interceptors have also been deployed at half a dozen locations in the south and around Tokyo.
Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka said the rocket would be shot down if it threatens Japanese territory.
In 1998 North Korea shocked Japan and the international community by launching, without warning, a two-stage medium-range ballistic missile that overflew Japan before landing in the Pacific Ocean. It claimed afterwards that the launch had been an attempt to put a satellite into space.
Then in 2009, North Korea tried to launch what it said was a satellite. The Unha three-stage carrier rocket successfully dumped its first stage into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan and continued flying over Japan, achieving a total of almost 2,000 miles before crashing into the Pacific about 18 minutes after launch.
‘Reckless war vertigo’
The U.S., South Korea and Japan have urged China to apply pressure on its ally to reconsider, but Beijing’s public response, as is its custom, has been low-key and cautious.
At a meeting with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was quoted by the Xinhua news agency as saying China hoped that “all parties involved would keep calm and exert restraint.”
With the launch drawing nearer, North Korea’s mouthpieces stepped up their customary belligerent rhetoric, directed primarily at the “group of traitors” – the North’s preferred term for South Korea’s conservative government – but also at the U.S. and Japan.
“The whole world already knows” that the planned satellite launch aims to advance science and technology, a regime body called the “Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea” said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency late last week.
“Several decades have passed since mankind launched the first satellite and thousands of satellites were put into outer space ever since. But there was no one who stoked confrontation recklessly trying to intercept the satellite for peaceful purposes,” it said. “To intercept the satellite for peaceful purposes is just an act of war and it is bound to entail tremendous catastrophe.”
In a separate report, KCNA quoted an analyst from the Russian Academy of Sciences as saying shooting down the carrier rocket would be “a direct act of war” that could spark armed conflict on the Korean peninsula.
The U.S., meanwhile, was advised in a commentary published in the regime’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper to “get rid of reckless war vertigo and behave itself.”
“In collusion with south Korea and Japan and other allies, the U.S. is making much fuss [about the planned launch], letting spy planes fly and dispatching Aegis warships and making preparations for intercepting the rocket,” the commentary said.
“The situation goes to prove that the U.S. is set to deliberately strain the situation and instigate the south Korean puppet forces to ignite another Korean war.”