Image: Satellite image of Musudan Ri rocket launch facility
DigitalGlobe via Reuters
A satellite image taken Tuesday shows Musudan Ri, formally know as the Taepodong missile launch facility, the area where a North Korean rocket launch facility is located.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/26/2009 8:24:34 PM ET 2009-03-27T00:24:34

North Korea's positioning of a rocket on its east coast launchpad ratcheted up tensions Thursday with Washington, which warned that pushing ahead with the April launch would violate a U.N. ban and have serious consequences.

Pyongyang says the rocket is designed to carry its Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite into orbit, an accomplishment timed for the eve of the inaugural session of North Korea's new parliament and for late founder Kim Il Sung's April 15 birthday.

But regional powers suspect the North will use the launch to test the delivery technology for a long-range missile, one capable of striking Alaska, or may even test-fire the intercontinental Taepodong-2 missile itself. Keeping speculation about the payload alive, North Korea reportedly has kept the top of the rocket covered.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that any rocket launch would be "provocative" and violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made similar comments Wednesday, saying the action could jeopardize the stalled talks on supplying North Korea with aid and other concessions in exchange for dismantling its nuclear program.

The Security Council banned North Korea from any ballistic activity in 2006.

"We intend to raise this violation of the Security Council resolution, if it goes forward, in the U.N.," Clinton said Wednesday in Mexico City. "This provocative action in violation of the U.N. mandate will not go unnoticed, and there will be consequences."

Japan has approved the deployment of a missile defense system to intercept debris that may fall onto its territory if the rocket launch fails, Japanese officials said Friday.

Getting Obama's attention
North Korea responded Thursday by threatening "strong steps" if the Security Council criticizes the launch, and suggested it would reverse nuclear disablement carried out so far. Any challenge to its bid to send the satellite into space would mean an immediate end to nuclear disarmament talks, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Top nuclear envoys from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. were to meet in Washington Friday, signaling growing concern over North Korea's plans.

"A launch of any type of vehicle we would consider to be in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions," said State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said. "This provocative type of action would ... not go unnoticed."

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The diplomatic tussle puts North Korea right where it wants to be: at the center of Washington's attention, analysts said.

"This action is something that cannot be ignored. ... This is a way to get attention from the U.S. and the Obama administration," said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank. "The North Korean leadership probably believes this will help achieve their objective of engaging the U.S."

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Analysts say Pyongyang is angling to establish direct relations with President Barack Obama's White House in hopes of circumventing the international disarmament talks that require the North to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for much-needed aid.

Complicating the diplomacy is the detention of two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling of former Vice President Al Gore's online media venture Current TV, for allegedly crossing into North Korea illegally from China last week.

North Korea could use the Americans as bargaining chips, said North Korea expert Koh Yu-hwan of Dengue University. He called their detention an "unexpected gift" for Pyongyang, giving the regime added leverage in its push for direct talks with Washington.

"The timing couldn't be better for North Korea," Pinkston said. "It strengthens the North's bargaining position with the U.S. in dealing with the nuclear issue."

'Brisk headway'
North Korea had declared last month that it was making "brisk headway" in preparations to shoot the satellite into space, and notified aviation and maritime authorities the launch would happen April 4-8.

U.S. spy satellites detected the rocket two days ago, South Korean reports said.  and intelligence officials in Washington confirmed reports that a rocket was in position.

Once in place, scientists need several days to test and fuel the rocket, analysts said. North Korea is now "technically" capable of launching it in three to four days, South Korea's Chosen Elba newspaper said, citing an unnamed diplomatic official.

South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities have not yet determined whether the rocket is intended to carry a satellite or a missile because the top is concealed with a cover, the  news agency said, citing an unnamed South Korean government official.

Smokescreen?
One analyst called it a possible smokescreen designed to invite speculation.

"I think North Korea is trying to raise as much attention as it can by covering (the top) so that it cannot be verified and it will create confusion," said Yang Moo-jinn, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

Missiles and satellites share the same delivery technology so either way, next month's launch "would contribute to the development of its ballistic capacities," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Frederic  told reporters in Paris in joining calls against any launch.

North Korea is not believed to have mastered the miniaturization technology required to mount a nuclear weapon onto a ballistic missile, but successfully test-firing the rocket would be a step toward developing a means to deliver a nuclear weapon, Koh said.

Seoul warned that a launch would threaten regional stability and said it would take the matter to the Security Council.

Japan on alert
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman In Gang urged restraint, saying he hoped all parties would "do things to contribute to peace and stability on the peninsula."

Japan's national security council approved an order to deploy interceptors in case debris falls onto its territory, public broadcaster NHK reported. North Korea has designated waters off northern Japan as at risk for falling fragments.

Japan is also set to shift some of the PAC-3 land-to-air missiles, now around Tokyo, to the north coast and to send a pair of destroyers carrying missile interceptors to nearby waters.

Tokyo has also warned of additional sanctions if North Korea goes ahead with a launch.

Japan imposed tight trade sanctions against Pyongyang in 2006 after it tested ballistic missiles in waters between the two countries and conducted an atomic test. Japan's current sanctions, which have been extended every six months, are set to expire April 13.

More on: Taepodong

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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