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North Korea says rocket, satellite launch is imminent

A South Korean protester holds a mock missile at a rally Friday near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

Associated Press

A South Korean protester holds a mock missile at a rally Friday near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said preparations to launch a communications satellite into space were complete this morning and liftoff was imminent.

Spy satellites trained high-resolution cameras on a coastal launch pad for a launch. The countdown could begin as early as this morning, and North Korea says its rocket will blast off sometime between then and Wednesday. It warned aircraft to stay clear of its easterly trajectory over northern Japan, toward the Pacific.

Weather forecasts say it will be cloudy with no strong winds over the Musudan-ri launching site on North Korea's coast, meaning the North could launch the rocket anytime during the period.

"I think it's almost certain North Korea will fire the missile," President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea said Friday in London, where he was attending the Group of 20 summit meeting, Reuters reported. Lee vowed a "strong and stern response."

North Korea is pressing ahead despite mounting international pressure to call off a launch President Barack Obama said Friday would be "provocative."

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo suspect North Korea's real motive is to test its long-range missile technology. The plans have sparked alarm because North Korea has acknowledged it has nuclear weapons and has repeatedly broken promises to shelve its nuclear program or halt rocket tests.

Obama, appearing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Strasbourg, France, said the launch should be stopped. Obama said the United States will "take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that it can't threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity."

The United States, Japan and South Korea deployed warships with radar and other surveillance equipment in the waters near the Communist nation to monitor the launch.

Efforts to persuade North Korea to give up the plan continued, though there were no signs of a last-minute diplomatic breakthrough.

U.N. Security Council diplomats, anticipating a weekend emergency session if the launch proceeds, said a draft resolution had begun circulating that could essentially reaffirm and tighten enforcement of the demands and sanctions of a resolution passed in October 2006 after a North Korean nuclear test. It banned North Korea from ballistic missile activity.

A strong united response likely would prove difficult, however, because China and Russia hold veto power in the council and could argue that nonmilitary space missions are exempt.

Two U.S. destroyers are believed to have departed from South Korea to monitor the launch. South Korea is using its destroyer equipped with Aegis ballistic missile defense technology, said a Seoul military official who asked not to be identified, citing department policy.

North Korea has complained that the United States is using high-altitude U-2 spy planes and has warned the aircraft would be shot down if they intrude into its airspace.

Japan has deployed warships and Patriot missile interceptors off its northern coast to shoot down any wayward rocket parts that the North has said might fall over the area. Tokyo has said it is only protecting its territory and has no intention of trying to shoot down the rocket itself, but North Korea accused Japan of inciting militarism at home to justify developing a nuclear weapons program of its own.

North Korea says rocket, satellite launch is imminent 04/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 12:16am]
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