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2009/02/26 11:03 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 43 (February 26, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea Officially Announces It Is Preparing to Fire 'Satellite'

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Despite repeated international warnings, North Korea is poised to go ahead with launching a long-range ballistic missile in a week or two -- possibly next month. In a statement from its national space committee, North Korea said Feb. 24 it is preparing to launch a "satellite" from its northeastern coast, a statement that follows weeks of intelligence reports suggesting Pyongyang has been preparing to test a long-range missile.

   The North's Korean Committee of Space Technology said it is preparing to fire another satellite called the Kwangmyongsong-2 at the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground located at Musudan-ri in North Hamgyong Province. The North did not say when the launch would take place, but Seoul expects it will be ready in a week or two.

   "Full-scale preparations are underway at a satellite launch site in Hwadae County, North Hamgyong Province, to launch satellite 'Kwangmyongsong-2' on rocket 'Unha-2,'" said an unnamed North Korean space committee official.

   While the North insists it is a satellite launch, intelligence sources from the United States and South Korea believe it is the Taepodong-2, a long-distance missile believed to be capable of traveling up to 6,000 km to reach Alaska and even the U.S. West Coast. The North Korean statement referred to the "satellite launcher" as the Unha-2.

   "Outer space is an asset common to mankind, and its use for peaceful purposes has become a global trend," the spokesman said. The planned launch is of an "experimental communications satellite" called Kwangmyongsong-2, the spokesman said, by means of a delivery rocket called Unha-2. He said preparations are "now making brisk headway" at the launching ground.

   "When this satellite launch proves successful, the nation's space science and technology will make another giant stride forward in building an economic power," the spokesman said in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

   In the statement, North Korea said its satellite program has achieved "signal progress" over the past 10 years and now plans to put a number of "practical satellites" into orbit for communications, natural resources development and weather forecast purposes.

   The North's announcement of an imminent satellite launch is the latest of a series of threats escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, timed with the inauguration of the Barack Obama administration late last month.

   Seoul and Washington have already issued warnings that they would not tolerate the launch. In a notably toughened stance, the U.S. has said it will shoot down the missile if it heads its way.

   A South Korean intelligence source said North Korea may be ready to launch it in a week or two, citing activity around the launch base with radars and other measurement equipment. Pyongyang has yet to load fuel into the launch pad, sources said. Seoul experts say North Korea may well launch a satellite, not a missile, as Pyongyang has long wanted a satellite for its mobile communications and to gather military and weather information.

   On Feb. 7, Pyongyang laid its claim to "space development." North Korea made a similar claim after launching what it called satellite "Kwangmyongsong-1" in 1998. The U.S. government later concluded it was a failed satellite launch, as Pyongyang had not yet mastered the required solid-fuel technology.

   Despite the failure, the launch led the Bill Clinton administration to initiate missile talks with Pyongyang that year, in which the North demanded US$3 billion in return for ending its missile program. Subsequent talks broke down. After firing a long-range Taepodong-2 missile in 2006, Pyongyang acknowledged it was a missile launch. It failed about 40 seconds after blast-off.

   South Korea and the U.S. view North Korea's satellite activity as a threat, as putting a satellite into orbit involves technology development also used in advancing a long-range missile system. When Iran put its satellite in space early this month, the U.S. called it a "grave concern."

   The space committee's statement came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured the Asian region, including South Korea. She warned North Korea during her trip to Seoul last week not to engage in "provocative and unhelpful" behavior. Clinton said the missile issue could be addressed at the six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program, but the multilateral negotiations have been in limbo since late last year because of a dispute over how to verify North Korea's past nuclear activity.

   South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan has also warned that Pyongyang would face stern international punishment. A rocket launch of any kind -- whether it is a missile or a satellite -- will be a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution banning the North's missile activities, he said. The sanction was adopted after Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests in 2006.

   In Beijing on Feb. 24, visiting South Korean Foreign Minister Yu expressed strong concern over the North Korean missile threat during a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi. The South Korean minister arrived in Beijing on Feb. 24 for a two-day visit aimed at discussing how to counter the latest North Korean missile threat and break an on-going deadlock in the six-party talks on the country's nuclear ambitions.

   "It is a breach of the resolution of the U.N. Security Council for North Korea to launch anything, whether it be a ballistic missile or a satellite," Yu was quoted as saying to the Chinese foreign minister.

   In response, Yang said he expects North Korea to refrain from taking provocative action and raising tension. "I expect each side to do something to contribute to the stabilization of Northeast Asia," he said.

   Seoul's Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee called on the North to "provide proof" that what it is planning to fire was really a satellite. "North Korea must also reveal the body of the satellite as well," Lee said at a meeting of the parliamentary defense committee on Feb. 24.

   Lee said South Korea will consider, whatever the North plans to launch -- whether a satellite or a missile -- a military threat because the technology is essentially the same.

   Military sources in Seoul have forecast that the test-firing could occur as early as March. "Our intelligence sources have picked up signs that the North is making last-minute preparations for the launch, setting up radars and other necessary equipment. Another expert said the launch may take place shortly after the March parliamentary elections in North Korea, recalling that the 1998 test came about a month after parliamentary elections that year. The expert also said Iran has likely shared its technology with North Korea. Several Iranian technicians visited North Korea to observe its missile launch in 2006, he said.

   On Feb. 24, the U.S. State Department again warned North Korea to refrain from launching either a long-range missile or a satellite into orbit, saying any such activities would violate a United Nations resolution.

   "As you know, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 prohibits the North from engaging in ballistic-missile-related activities, and whether it's a space-launched vehicle or a missile, some of the building blocks for developing a space-launched vehicle and for producing long-range missiles are similar," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in a daily news briefing.

   South Korean officials have said that the launch could take place within weeks, in time for the parliamentary election in March. In April, it is expected that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will be reestablished as the chairman of the National Defense Commission, with the possible announcement of his third son, Jong-un, as heir apparent.

   Reports have said that the recent shakeup of the North's military, including the replacement of the defense minister, could be linked to a move to establish the third son as successor in the wake of the North Korean leader's apparent health failure from a stroke last summer.

   Pyongyang has threatened to cut off all military and political ties with South Korea, nullify a western sea border and possibly go to war with the conservative Lee Myung-bak government. Unlike his predecessors, who have provided generous rice, fertilizer and energy aid to the North regardless of its nuclear and missile programs, Lee has adopted a hard line.