North Korea raises tension with rocket

Not even China is happy with Pyongyang's test launch later this month

North Korea has said it will launch a long-range rocket in mid-December, a provocative move just eight months after a failed attempt violated a United Nations ban on further development of its nuclear and missile programmes.

The rocket launch is likely to heighten already strained tensions with Washington and Seoul, especially as South Korea will hold its presidential election on 19 December. Neither will it please the single-party state's only ally, China.

"If North Korea does carry out a launch, Beijing will not be happy," Evans Revere, a former senior US State Department official and expert on East Asia, said. "It flies in the face of China's request for North Korea to reduce tensions in the region and not escalate them."

The development is the latest example of the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, striking a newly aggressive pose to coincide with the anniversary of his father's death a year ago on 17 December. On Thursday, North Korea replaced its defence minister with Kim Kyok Sik, a hard-line military commander believed to have been responsible for deadly attacks on South Korea in 2010. The same day, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that North Korea has made further progress in the construction of a new atomic reactor, a facility that could extend its capacity to produce material for nuclear bombs. North Korea says it needs nuclear power to provide electricity, but has also boasted of its nuclear deterrence capability and traded nuclear technology with Syria, Libya and probably Pakistan.

The announcement by North Korea's space agency of an impending rocket launch followed speculation about increased activity at North Korea's west coast launch pad. Such talk was fuelled by images captured by commercial satellites. Among these, according to an analysis written for 38 North, the website for the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, was a photograph taken on Monday showing a pair of long trucks thought to be carrying the first two stages of a rocket. The lorries were parked near the main missile assembly building, where rocket stages would be checked before moving to the launch pad for take-off about half a mile away.

The previous launch attempt took place during celebrations in April of the centennial of the birth of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader. North Korea has, in the way of totalitarian states, declared 2012 a "crucial year for scientific and economic development", and there has been anticipation that it could do something extraordinary to mark the year's conclusion.

The country is already subject to a lengthy list of sanctions because of its nuclear programme. Its economic weakness and diplomatic isolation means that Pyongyang has few tools to pressure the outside world. Military muscle-flexing is one of the only outlets. No fewer than 1.2 million of the country's population of 23 million are in its armed services, an absurdly high percentage that helps account for the country's lack of economic progress and why so many of its people are malnourished.

Tensions in the region have been high for 60 years. The Korean Peninsula remains in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Washington stations nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea as a buttress against any North Korean aggression. Tens of thousands more are in nearby Japan. Washington's most recent attempt to negotiate a freeze of the North's nuclear programme and a test moratorium in exchange for food aid collapsed with the April rocket launch.

The White House considers North Korea's space programme to be a veiled cover for tests of technology for long-range missiles designed to strike the United States, and such tests are banned by the United Nations. North Korea has capable short- and medium-range missiles, but long-range launches in 1998, 2006, 2009 and, most recently, this April have all ended in failure. It is not known to have succeeded in mounting an atomic bomb on a missile, but is believed to have enough weaponised plutonium for at least half a dozen bombs. In 2010, it revealed a uranium enrichment project that could provide a second source of material for nuclear weapons.

Six-nation negotiations on dismantling North Korea's nuclear programme in exchange for aid fell apart in early 2009.

A spokesman for North Korea's Korean Committee for Space Technology said scientists have "analysed the mistakes" made in the failed spring launch and improved the precision of its Unha rocket and Kwangmyongsong satellite. The state news agency said the launch was a request of the late leader Kim Jong Il. And North Koreans are expected to mark the anniversary of his death with some fanfare. The space agency said the rocket would be mounted with a polar-orbiting Earth observation satellite, and maintained its right to develop a peaceful space programme.

Under its young leader, North Korea has pledged to bolster its nuclear arsenal unless Washington scraps what it calls a "hostile" policy. It maintains that it is building bombs to defend itself against what it sees as an American nuclear threat in the region.

Before its last two rocket launches, North Korea notified the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization about its intentions to launch. The two organisations haven't responded to requests from the Associated Press for details. But South Korean officials and outside analysts say North Korea has not notified international or South Korean authorities.

In Seoul, officials have accused North Korea of trying to influence South Korea's imminent presidential election. The conservative Park Geun Hye, daughter of late President Park Chung Hee, is facing the liberal Moon Jae In, a supporter of closer engagement with Pyongyang. Polls show the candidates in a close race. Both have indicated they would be willing to soften policy towards North Korea. Moon, in particular, has suggested a return to an accommodating policy of engagement and aid for Pyongyang which has been missing during the five years of President Lee Myung Bak's rule. This ends in February when his single term expires.

Just three days ago, South Korea cancelled what would have been the launch of its first satellite from its own territory. Scientists in Seoul cited technical difficulties. South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the North's planned launch is "a grave provocation and a head-on challenge to the international community".

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