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(News Focus) N. Korea's rocket launch timed to mark 1st anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death
SEOUL, Dec. 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's earlier-than-expected launch of what it calls a rocket carrying a satellite has likely been timed to come before the first anniversary of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as well as South Korea's presidential election slated for next week, experts in Seoul said Wednesday.

   The South Korean government said Pyongyang fired off a long-range rocket from its northwestern launching site at 9:51 a.m., which South Korean warships immediately detected.

   South Korean media and experts had estimated the launch would come far later than Wednesday as the North announced on Monday it was extending the launch window by a week. The communist country initially said the launch would be carried out between Dec. 10-22.

   On Monday, the North said the delay was to fix a "technical deficiency" in the rocket's first-stage control engine module, raising speculation that the country would delay or scrap the launch plan, which, it said, was aimed at putting a "working satellite" into orbit.

   South Korea and the international community have been closely watching Pyongyang's rocket moves as they are widely believed to be a test for ballistic missile technology.

   Experts in Seoul said the earlier-than-anticipated rocket launch has likely been carried out as part of Pyongyang's efforts to utilize the launch as a major commemoration ceremony for the first anniversary of the late leader's death on Dec. 17.
They also said the "technical deficiency" found in the rocket may have been a minor one, requiring only a short time to fix.

   "It is highly likely that the technical deficiency may have not been that serious since the country speedily proceeded with the launch," said Chang Yong-suk, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. The deficiency may have required only minor repairs rather than a substantial overhaul, he added.

   Given the North has promoted the launch as a dying instruction from the late leader, Pyongyang was probably striving to launch the rocket before the first anniversary of Kim's death next week, experts said.

   Meanwhile, the recent rocket launch has raised questions over a potential nuclear weapons test in the country.

   Two of Pyongyang's rocket launches, in 2006 and 2009, were followed by tests of nuclear weapons in the following months as part of the country's apparent efforts to earn bargaining power in the disarmament negotiations.

   Experts said the North could resort to another nuclear test if the country is further cornered by international sanctions and condemnation following Wednesday's rocket launch.

   Seoul indicated that the North is technically ready for another nuclear test, but no clear signs have yet been detected of a potential test.

   The Seoul government has detected two new tunnels in the North's nuclear testing ground in Punggye-ri in the country's northeastern corner, in addition to two more which have been used for previous tests.

   "Another nuclear test cannot be ruled out in case the international community pressures the North with sanctions following the rocket launch," said Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

   Other experts, however, said the country may refrain from further provocation for fear of punishment from the international community.

   The country has already proved its nuclear capability to the world, Chang said, adding "for the latest rocket launch, the country has openly promoted it as an effort to launch a working satellite into orbit."

   pbr@yna.co.kr
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