PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea will fire a long-range rocket this month in defiance of international sanctions, as the totalitarian regime marks the anniversary of former leader Kim Jong Il’s death and as South Koreans go to the polls to elect a new president.
The communist state will launch a polar-orbiting Earth observation satellite atop an Unha-3 rocket between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22, state-run Korean Central News Agency said Saturday. South Korea “sternly” warned its neighbor against the plan, which it said would bring a “forceful response” from the world.
The United States also Saturday condemned North Korea's plan to carry out its second rocket launch of 2012 as a "highly provocative act" that would threaten peace and violate U.N. sanctions.
"A North Korean 'satellite' launch would be a highly provocative act that threatens peace and security in the region," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in a written statement reported by Reuters.
"Any North Korean launch using ballistic missile technology is in direct violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions," she added.
The planned liftoff, from the Sohae Space Center about 80 miles northwest of the capital Pyongyang, may complicate international efforts to engage North Korea. An unsuccessful attempt to fire a long-range rocket earlier this year cost the impoverished country a food-aid deal with the U.S.
“North Korea is trying to make up for the failure of the April rocket launch and thereby solidify new leader Kim Jong Un’s rule,” said Baek Seung Joo, an analyst at Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “The launch is timed to mark the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death.”
A “safe flight path” has been chosen so that potential debris from the launch won’t affect neighboring countries, KCNA said. North Korea will fully comply with relevant international regulations regarding satellite launches, it said.
North Korea, ruled by third-generation dictator Kim Jong Un, is developing missiles that may be able to reach North America and carry warheads weighing as much as 500-pounds, according to U.S. and South Korean estimates. The U.S. has previously called North Korea’s satellite announcements a cover for testing long-range ballistic missiles.
The rocket is likely to be launched on Dec. 17, the anniversary of the late Kim’s death from a heart attack, Baek said. South Korea’s Dec. 19 election to choose a successor to President Lee Myung Bak is also a factor in the timing, he said.
South Korea’s military is “closely monitoring” North Korea’s launch preparations, Defense Ministry spokesman Shin Won Sik said Saturday by phone. No unusual troop movements have been spotted in the North and South Korean alert levels remain unchanged, he said.
The North’s repeated attempts to fire long-range rockets, in violation of United Nations resolutions, are a “full-frontal challenge” to the international community,’’ Cho Tai Young, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, said in a statement on the ministry’s website.
Any North Korean launch using ballistic missile technology is banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions, he said.
The United States agreed in October to allow South Korea to extend the range of its missiles to 500 miles against possible nuclear and missile attacks from the North.
North Korea was becoming a “direct threat” to the United States and would probably develop an intercontinental ballistic missile within five years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in January 2011.
North Korea’s arsenal includes Scud, Rodong and Musudan missiles. The Musudan has a range of more than 1,500 miles 300-pound warhead, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
Kim’s regime is also developing its Taepodong-2 missile, which may have a range of 3,000 miles and be able to carry a warhead weighing as much as 500 pounds, according to U.S. and South Korean estimates.
The announcement of the planned launch comes just days after South Korea canceled the liftoff of a civilian space rocket because of a technical problem.
It also follows North Korea’s artillery shelling two years ago of Yeonpyeong Island near a disputed sea border, which killed four people. The regime said the attack was retaliation for South Korean artillery fire in the area.
North Korea won’t “miss the opportunity” if “warmongers perpetrate another provocation,” an unidentified North Korean military spokesman said in a statement published on Nov. 22 by the official KCNA.
In April, an Unha-3 rocket, which North Korea said carried a Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite, failed minutes after liftoff in a setback to Kim’s then four-month-old regime.
Under his father Kim Jong Il, who ruled the secretive nation from 1994 to 2011, North Korean tests included a Taepodong-2 missile in April 2009, which flew 1,800 miles to 2,200 miles before disintegrating.
Kim, believed to be in his twenties, has also shown no sign of abandoning his country’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea has no plan “at present” to conduct a nuclear test, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by KCNA in June.
The North, which twice detonated nuclear devices, said in April 2009 it would restore its main nuclear reactor for making weapons-grade plutonium at Yongbyon, which was disabled under a February 2007 agreement made at six-party talks including North and South Korea, Russia, China, the United States, and Japan.
The regime denied having a separate uranium-enrichment program until September 2009, when it told the U.N. Security Council it was “weaponizing” plutonium and had almost succeeded in highly enriching uranium.
North Korea has more than 250 long-range artillery installations along the Demilitarized Zone, the world’s most fortified border, according to U.S. military estimates.
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