TOKYO — By announcing that it is preparing to launch a "communications satellite," North Korea on Tuesday dressed up its planned test of a long-range ballistic missile — which might be able to reach Alaska — as a benign research project.
"Outer space is an asset common to mankind, and its use for peaceful purposes has become a global trend," said a spokesman for the North Korean Committee of Space Technology.
North Korea's announcement comes amid warnings from the United States not to test the missile. A United Nations resolution, passed after North Korea exploded a nuclear device in 2006, bans the country from any ballistic missile activity.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week that a missile test would "be very unhelpful in moving our relationship forward." In a tour of East Asia, she urged the government of Kim Jong Il to stop its "provocative actions."
North Korea appears to be setting up radar and other monitoring equipment around a missile launch site on its northeast coast, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday. It said, however, that a missile has not yet been placed on the launch pad.
Eleven years ago, North Korea surprised the world by firing a long-range, three-stage Taepodong-1 missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean. Afterward, amid an international outcry, North Korean officials said that the country had merely exercised its right to "space development."
That launch and another round of North Korean missile tests in 2006 alarmed Japan, which has since invested heavily in American-made ballistic missile defense systems.
These systems raise the possibility that a North Korean missile launch — even one advertised in advance as a peaceful space probe — could be destroyed in flight.
Analysts say knocking down a North Korean missile could precipitate a much greater regional crisis than the initial launch.
Daniel Pinkston, who works for the International Crisis group, said that Kim's government has much to gain and little to lose from launching a satellite atop its long-range missile, especially if it gets shot down by an American-made weapon.
He said that if the missile is shot down, it will give North Korea an excuse to back out of negotiations with the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia over its nuclear weapons program.
"The best thing is no launch or the thing blows up on the launch pad. All the other scenarios are bad," Pinkston said.