U.S. warns of possible N. Korean missile launch

November 23, 2012

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent

North Korea is preparing to launch another long-range ballistic missile, possibly by the end of the month, U.S. government officials told their Japanese and South Korean counterparts.

But there is uncertainty over whether the launch would actually take place so soon with South Korea preparing for a presidential election in December.

According to sources in Japan, the United States and South Korea, cargo that appeared to be missile parts was transferred in early November from a weapons factory in the Sanumdong district of Pyongyang to an assembly plant at the missile launch base at Tongchang-ri, North Phyongan province, in northwestern North Korea.

Satellite photos of the cargo showed similarities to the long-range ballistic missile that North Korea launched in April. That project was a failure as the missile exploded soon after takeoff.

The April launch was conducted about 20 days after the cargo was transported to the launch site, leading analysts to calculate that another launch was technically possible by the end of November.

About a month before the April launch, North Korea said it was planning to launch a rocket carrying a satellite. It also informed the International Maritime Organization of its plans.

According to a report by the Korean Central News Agency, a North Korean official gave a speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Nov. 15 and said that Pyongyang would continue to launch commercial satellites. However, as of Nov. 22, North Korea had not made any announcement about a specific launch date.

A new missile launch at an early date would provoke widespread international criticism. In addition to the South Korean presidential election, a Lower House election will be held on Dec. 16 in Japan.

Japanese and North Korean officials recently held talks on issues separating the two countries. The next South Korean administration is also expected to seek dialogue with its northern neighbor, and Barack Obama will enter his second term as U.S. president in January.

Some analysts said the latest move may be another example of brinksmanship on the part of North Korea. Because Pyongyang is aware of the orbit of U.S. spy satellites, it might have moved the cargo to use as a bargaining chip to obtain economic benefits in exchange for North Korea agreeing to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

There are also doubts over whether North Korea has uncovered the reason for the failed April launch and improved its missile technology.

Normally, such procedures take between one to two years, so there is skepticism of North Korea making another attempt just seven months after the failed launch.

At the same time, there is the possibility of the North Korean military going ahead with a launch to demonstrate not only its presence, but also the fact that Kim Jong Un has not established as solid a hold on the nation as his late father, Kim Jong Il.

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent
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This satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe and annotated by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, 38 North, shows a facility in Tongchang-ri, North Korea, where analysts believe rocket engines have been tested in a sign that North Korea continues to develop its long-range ballistic missiles. (AP Photo)

This satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe and annotated by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, 38 North, shows a facility in Tongchang-ri, North Korea, where analysts believe rocket engines have been tested in a sign that North Korea continues to develop its long-range ballistic missiles. (AP Photo)

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  • This satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe and annotated by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, 38 North, shows a facility in Tongchang-ri, North Korea, where analysts believe rocket engines have been tested in a sign that North Korea continues to develop its long-range ballistic missiles. (AP Photo)

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