North Korea fuels rocket for centenary launch in defiance of US threats

 

Seoul

North Korea fuelled up its latest long-range rocket yesterday, in defiance of vague threats from the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of "appropriate action" if it is launched.

Pyongyang could fire off the rocket as early as today, provided the weather is clear enough on the projected south-easterly flight pattern that may take it over the southern Japanese island of Okinawa to the South Pacific.

Japan has warned ships to stay clear of waters around Okinawa while threatening to shoot down the rocket – which the North says will be mounted with a satellite – if it crosses Japanese territory.

The US, Japan, Britain and others have said the move would violate UN Security Council resolutions banning the North from developing its nuclear and missile programmes.

In the run-up to the launch, North Korea's youthful "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong-un received a formal title aimed at underlining his authority.

As engineers were gassing up the rocket on its launch pad near the country's north-western coast, the ruling Workers' Party named him "First Secretary" – a new position created in deference to his late father, Kim Jong-il, who had had the title of General Secretary when he died last December. Rather than give the same title to Kim Jong-un, still in his late 20s, Pyongyang's Korea Central News Agency said Kim Jong-il would remain "Eternal General Secretary".

The title seemed logical, considering that the "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung was honoured as the "Eternal President" after dying in 1994 and leaving power to his son, Kim Jong-il. The rocket launch provides the fireworks for celebrations surrounding the centennial on Sunday of Kim Il-sung's birth in 1912.

The move to buttress Kim Jong-un's position came as South Koreans went to the polls yesterday in crucial National Assembly elections seen as a test of the waning popularity of the country's conservative President Lee Myung-bak. In early returns, the conservatives seemed likely to retain the assembly in the run-up to the election in December of a successor to Mr Lee, who is limited to a single five-year term under the South's "democracy" constitution.

As the hours ticked down to the North's rocket launch, headlines in the South reflected abiding interest in Pyongyang's machinations. A South Korean defence official said satellite imagery confirmed what a North Korean official had already told foreign journalists: that the country had finished injecting fuel into the missile. The North Korean said his "superiors" would decide when to fire the rocket.

North Korea has repeatedly said the launch would put a weather satellite into orbit – the same claim made after launches of an earlier version of the same rocket in 1998 and 2009. US and Russian scientists reported no sign of a satellite in either of those tests, which launched rockets with a theoretical range as far as the coast of the United States.

Yesterday, North Korea continued to show no outward signs of concern in the face of strong warnings by Barack Obama of consequences for the planned launch. The most the US can do, it's assumed, is raise the issue in the UN, which adopted sanctions in 2009.

1912

The year Kim Il-sung, the 'Great Leader' and 'Eternal President' was born.

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