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2009/04/02 11:01 KST

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

World Paying Keen Attention to N. Korea's Imminent Rocket Launch

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The world is paying keen attention to the impact of North Korea's pending rocket launch as Pyongyang readies for what it insists is an effort to put a satellite in orbit. Intelligence sources said on April 2 that the North was making final preparations for the launch of a three-stage rocket as the announced launch period of April 4-8 draws near.

   A U.S. research institute has disclosed the latest commercial satellite images that show North Korea's rocket mounted onto a launch pad at Musudan-ri on the country's east coast. And CNN reported on April 1 the North has begun fueling the rocket with a satellite as payload, meaning the proposed launch is only days away.

   The United States and its allies South Korea and Japan see the launch as cover for the test of a ballistic missile, arguing that the delivery mechanism for the two is identical and warning of possible additional sanctions to those imposed under a U.N. resolution in 2006 that bans the North from any ballistic missile activity.

   Chinese and Russian officials, however, have been urging the parties concerned to show restraint, inviting speculation that they may not join any efforts to further sanction the North. North Korea insists it has the right to orbit a satellite as part of its space program.

   North Korea's latest move came while U.S. President Barack Obama was in London to meet with the leaders of the Group of 20 advanced economies. Obama met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev bilaterally a day ahead of the G-20 economic summit. The U.S. president conveyed his intention to refer the rocket launch to the U.N Security Council, a move which could lead to further sanctions against North Korea.

   China is North Korea's staunchest communist ally and has been lukewarm towards efforts by the U.S. and its allies to impose harsher sanctions on Pyongyang should it go through with the launch. Both China and Russia hold veto power in the Security Council, and reports have suggested they may go against a U.S. call to punish North Korea for the launch.

   Amid widespread speculation that the United States could attempt an interception of the rocket, recent statements have put the rumors to rest as concerns rose at any possible overreaction to Pyongyang's rocket launch.

   South Korean president Lee Myung-bak said on March 30 he is against responding militarily to North Korea's test-firing of a long-range rocket, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ruled out the possibility of Washington taking military action against the rocket launch.

   President Lee said South Korea opposes taking any military action against North Korea's missile launch though some countries are "rightly" concerned over the safety of their own citizens due to threats from the launch of what North Korea claims to be a communications satellite. "What I do oppose is to militarily respond to these kind of actions because it is also not in their interest to test-fire anything," the South Korean president said in an interview with the British newspaper Financial Times.

   The remarks came shortly after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. will not try to intercept the North Korean rocket unless it is headed for U.S. territory. In a reversal of his previous remarks, Gates said on March 29 that the United States will not shoot down the rocket set to be fired by North Korea in early April unless it is approaching the United States.

   "I think if we had an aberrant missile, one that was headed for Hawaii, that looked like it was headed for Hawaii or something like that, we might consider it," Gates told "FOX News Sunday." "But I don't think we have any plans to do anything like that at this point."

   On the question of what the U.S. will do about North Korea's rocket launch, Gates said, "I would say we're not prepared to do anything about it." The remarks are a reversal of those he made last month when he hinted that the U.S. might intercept a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile should one approach American territory.

   Senior U.S. military officers have told Congressional hearings that they were prepared to shoot down any North Korean rocket if such a decision is made, noting the U.S. missile defense system successfully intercepted ballistic missiles in training missions in recent months.

   Gates said he did not believe North Korea has acquired the technology to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a ballistic missile, but added the North's rocket launch aims to show off its ballistic missile capability despite Pyongyang's claim that it is sending a satellite into space between April 4-8.

   The U.S. decision not to shoot down the North Korean rocket comes amid reports that China and Russia have been lukewarm on efforts by the U.S. and its allies to further sanction North Korea over its imminent rocket launch.

   North Korea has warned that any interception will trigger a war, threatening to scrap six-party talks which remain deadlocked over how to verify North Korea's nuclear facilities. It also pledged to take "strong measures" in the face of any U.N. action against the rocket launch, hinting at a possible second nuclear test, following one conducted in 2006.

   Japan maintains a hawkish stance on the North's rocket launch and stands by its statement that it may intercept the rocket, but it seems to be toning down its position little by little as time goes by.

   North Korea will see any interception by Japan of its satellite launch as an act of invasion and respond with its "most powerful military means," the country's state news agency said March 31. "Should Japan dare recklessly intercept the DPRK's satellite, its army will consider this as the start of Japan's war of reinvasion more than six decades after the Second World War," the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. The North Korean army will "mercilessly destroy all its interceptor means and citadels with the most powerful military means," the report warned.

   But in Tokyo, Japanese defense authorities stepped back from their initial resolve to intercept a North Korean rocket if it flies over its territory. Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told the press late last month he issued an order to prepare to destroy any object that might fall on Japan as a result of an accident involving a flying object from North Korea.

   Japan had earlier suggested that it might shoot down the rocket, but now says it will intercept only if debris from the launch is likely to land in its territory.

   The North said Tokyo's true intentions are wrecking the six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program and justifying its own nuclear armament. "Looking back on the history of the six-party talks, Japan has done only wicked and wrong things obstructive to the denuclearization of the peninsula since their very start," it said.

   Japan has refused to send 200,000 tons of fuel oil, its share of the one million tons of fuel promised to North Korea in return for dismantling its nuclear facility, demanding Pyongyang account for its citizens abducted by the North in past decades.

   In Washington late last month, South Korea, the U.S. and Japan warned that the North will face the U.N. Security Council should it go ahead with a rocket launch, Seoul's nuclear envoy said on March 30, but others noted the possibility of further sanctions remained in question without commitments from China or Russia.

   "We are continuing diplomatic efforts based on a firm South Korea-U.S. cooperation and a consensus among participants of the six-party talks," Wi Sung-lac told South Korean correspondents here. Wi was explaining his meetings with Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. pointman on North Korea, and White House and congressional leaders on North Korea's missile and atomic programs, which he has been holding since on March 27.

   On March 31, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of possible sanctions against North Korea. "We have said repeatedly that their missile launch violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, and there will be consequences certainly in the United Nations Security Council if they proceed with the launch," Clinton told a news briefing in the Hague, Netherlands, hinting at possible sanctions at the United Nations Security Council.

   A launch could upset the region's stability by forcing Japan and South Korea to add military capabilities. South Korea announced on March 26 it is sending a destroyer ship to the East Sea, joining ships from Japan and the U.S. that are also monitoring the launch.

   On March 26, North Korea warned that any U.N. action will rupture the six-party denuclearization talks and prompt Pyongyang to reverse the disabling process of its key nuclear reactor. A spokesman for the North's foreign ministry said, "The UNSC's discussion on the DPRK's projected satellite launch for peaceful purposes itself, to say nothing of its adoption of any document containing even a single word critical of the launch whether in the form of a 'presidential statement' or a 'press statement,' will be regarded as a blatant hostile act against the DPRK."

   Whatever it is, success or failure of the launch will have a significant impact on security on the Korean Peninsula and in the surrounding area. If the impending launch turns out to be a success, then South Korea and the U.S. would have to drag the North to the table and ask for a moratorium on further tests.