updated 3/11/2009 6:57:02 PM ET 2009-03-11T22:57:02

North Korea, long known to obscure its ballistic missile tests behind claims of space rocket launches, may well try to fire a satellite into orbit later this month, according to top U.S. intelligence officials.

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"The North Koreans announced that they were going to do a space launch, and I believe that that's what they intend," National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week. "I could be wrong, but that would be my estimate."

North Korea announced its intention to launch the satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 in February. But regional powers suspected the claim as a cover for the launch of a long-range missile capable of reaching Alaska.

Known for faking in the past
North Korea has faked a satellite launch in the past to cloak its missile development. In 1998 it claimed to have put a satellite into orbit when a failed test missile splashed down near Japan.

In 2006 North Korea launched a Taepo Dong-2 missile that blew up less than a minute into flight. That failed attempt led to a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution banning future missile tests.

However, U.S. intelligence officials say a successful satellite launch would give North Korea a "three for one." Pyongyang would have its first satellite; it would demonstrate the prowess of its long-range missile program to Japan and the United States; and it would shame its rival South Korea, which is still months away from launching its own first satellite.

Whether North Korea actually intends a peaceful launch is a question U.S. intelligence has been wrestling with for weeks, according to another senior intelligence official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

One of the factors tipping the scales toward a possible satellite launch is South Korea's push to launch its two-stage Korea Space Launch Vehicle-01 as early as June. South Korea's Science and Technology Ministry declined to confirm that date, saying only that the launch will take place this year.

U.S. intelligence analysts see the launch by North Korea as an attempt to best its southern rival while sending a message to Japan and the United States, said a senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking anonymously because he is not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.

Rockets and missiles are similar
Space-launch rockets and long-range missiles are highly similar technologies. Master one, and the other isn't far behind, Blair explained Tuesday.

"The technology is indistinguishable from intercontinental ballistic missile," he said.

If North Korea can successfully use a three-stage rocket to push a satellite into orbit, it could also be used to threaten Alaska, Hawaii and part of the continental United States with an ICBM, Blair said.

Tim Brown, a senior fellow at Global Security.org who is closely monitoring commercial imagery for signs of a launch, said North Korea could be using a satellite launch to end-run the 2006 Security Council ban.

There is some debate in the arms control world whether a space launch would also violate that ban, but Brown said it is at least a safer bet than an outright missile test.

"If they launch a missile there are potential repercussions with even the Chinese, their sole political ally," Brown said.

U.S. intelligence believes North Korea is within weeks of launching the rocket and is monitoring its coastal launch site for indications it could come more quickly, a senior U.S. intelligence official said.

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