SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea's positioning of a rocket on its east coast launchpad ratcheted up tensions with Washington, which warned Thursday 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 covered the top of the rocket.
U.S. national intelligence director Dennis Blair said Pyongyang is trying to cloak the continued development of its outlaw long-range missile program by using a Taeopodong-2 missile to place a small satellite into orbit. He would not say whether the rocket is being fueled.
"I think North Korea is attempting to demonstrate an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) capability through a space launch," he told reporters in Washington on Thursday. "That's what they are up to — trying to use the rationale of a legitimate space launch for a missile which is, in its foundation, a military missile: the Taepodong."
He said North Korea risks "international opprobrium and hopefully worse if they successfully launch or launch it at all."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Thursday reiterated comments made a day earlier by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that any rocket launch would be "provocative" and violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Clinton warned that the launch could jeopardize the stalled talks on supplying North Korea with aid and other concessions in exchange for dismantling its nuclear program.
The U.N. 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.
North Korea responded by threatening "strong steps" if the Security Council so much as criticizes the launch and suggested it will reverse nuclear disablement carried out so far if sanctions are levied. Any challenge to its satellite launch would mean an immediate nullification of disarmament agreements, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried late Thursday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
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,'' said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank. "... This is a way to get attention from the U.S. and the Obama administration."