TONGCHANG-RI, North Korea — North Korean space officials have moved all three stages of a long-range rocket into position for a controversial launch, vowing Sunday to push ahead with their plan in defiance of international warnings against violating a ban on missile activity.
The Associated Press was among foreign news agencies allowed a firsthand look at preparations under way at the coastal Sohae Satellite Station in northwestern North Korea.
Also Sunday, the New York Times, citing an unnamed South Korean government spokesman, reported that North Korea appears to be preparing for its third underground nuclear test even as it presses ahead with the rocket launch. North Korea conducted underground tests in 2006 and 2009.
South Korea's main opposition Democratic United Party accused the government's National Intelligence Service of leaking the news of a possible nuclear test ahead of Wednesday's parliamentary elections as part of an effort to help the governing party.
Last month, North Korea announced plans for the rocket launch. It said it would send an observation satellite into space using a three-stage rocket during mid April celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. The United States, Japan, Britain and other nations urged North Korea to cancel the launch, warning that firing the long-range rocket would violate U.N. resolutions and North Korea's promise to refrain from engaging in nuclear and missile activity.
North Korea says the launch is a scientific achievement intended to improve the nation's faltering economy by providing detailed surveys of the countryside.
"Our country has the right and also the obligation to develop satellites and launching vehicles," Jang Myong Jin, general manager of the launch facility, said Sunday during a tour, citing the U.N. space treaty. "No matter what others say, we are doing this for peaceful purposes."
Experts say the Unha-3 rocket slated for liftoff between April 12 and 16 could also test long-range missile technology that might be used to strike the United States and other targets.
Jang denied the launch was a cover for a missile test.
Reporters were taken by train past desolate fields and sleepy farming hamlets to North Korea's new launch pad in Tongchang-ri in North Phyongan province, about 35 miles south of the border town of Sinuiju along North Korea's west coast.
All three stages of the 91-ton rocket, emblazoned with the North Korean flag and "Unha-3," were visibly in position at the towering launch pad, and fueling will begin soon, Jang said. He said that preparations were well on track for liftoff and that international space, aviation and maritime authorities had been advised of the plan.
Engineers gave reporters a peek at the 220-pound Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite due to be mounted on the rocket, as well as a tour of the command center.
About two weeks before North Korea unveiled its rocket plan, Washington announced an agreement with the North to provide it with much-needed food aid in exchange for a freeze on nuclear activity, including a moratorium on long-range missile tests. Plans to send food aid have now been suspended.
Japan and South Korea said they are prepared to shoot down any parts of the rocket that threaten to fall in their territory — a move North Korea's Foreign Ministry warned would be considered a declaration of war.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, the national news agency, Yonhap, and other media outlets carried reports that North Korea was digging new tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site in Kilju, near the northeastern tip of the country, to follow up on the underground tests it conducted there in 2006 and 2009.
The South Korean government spokesman, who spoke to the New York Times on condition of anonymity because he said he could not speak on the record on intelligence matters, said satellite images showed a growing pile of earth near the entrance of one tunnel, and government analysts said they considered it a potential sign of preparations for a test. A large amount of earth is needed to seal a tunnel before detonating a nuclear device inside.
The spokesman was confirming the reports carried by the national news media on Sunday.
Park Yong Jin, a spokesman for the main opposition Democratic United Party, said the government's National Intelligence Service leaked the information to help the conservative governing party in Wednesday's parliamentary election by emphasizing the North's nuclear threat. "North Korea has been hinting at a possible nuclear test for a month," Park said. "We wonder why the National Intelligence Service was highlighting this to the people and news media now."
During a campaign speech Sunday, Park Geun Hye, the leader of the governing New Frontier Party, sought to consolidate conservative support by mentioning the news reports about a possible North Korean nuclear test and the planned satellite launching.
The spy agency, which denies meddling in domestic politics, declined to comment.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.