N.Korean rocket launch plan draws international condemnation

SEOUL/WASHINGTON Sat Mar 17, 2012 3:44am IST

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SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea said on Friday it will launch a long-range rocket carrying a "working" satellite to mark the centenary of founder Kim Il-sung's birth next month in a move that drew international condemnation and could scuttle U.S. plans to resume food aid.

The United States warned North Korea that such a launch could violate Pyongyang's February agreement to stop nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and long-range missile launches and to allow checks by nuclear inspectors.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, urged North Korea to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions banning launches using ballistic missile technology.

Russia, South Korea, Japan, Britain, France and others also expressed concern. Russia's Foreign Ministry called for "maximum restraint from all sides," suggesting aggressive responses by North Korea's neighbors also would be ill-advised.

Experts said the launch was clearly another long-range missile test, and could be seen as an act of brinkmanship to pressure Washington into more talks in return for aid. Analysts said the launch also was aimed at boosting the communist country's new leadership.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the announcement was highly provocative and called on North Korea to honor its obligations including the U.N. Security Council resolutions banning ballistic missile launches.

"Such a missile launch would pose a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea's recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches," she said in a statement.

The State Department said a launch could force the United States to halt plans for food aid that were announced alongside the nuclear deal and seen as a step to ease tensions following the December death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and the ascent of his young and untested heir, Kim Jong-un.

South Korea, still technically at war with the North after signing only an armistice to end the 1950-53 Korean War, and Japan said the ballistic launch threatened regional security.

North Korea pledged that next month's launch would not impact neighboring countries. Pyongyang has provided few details on the new satellite, but has said it will be a "working" satellite developed using indigenous technology.

The launch will take place between April 12-16, North Korea's official KCNA said. It is due to occur at around the time South Korea holds a parliamentary election, and just over three weeks after a global nuclear security summit in Seoul.

'REFRAIN FROM THE LAUNCH'

Any launch by North Korea, whether for a satellite or not, that uses ballistic missile technology violates Security Council resolutions, the Japanese government said.

"We urge North Korea to exercise restraint and refrain from the launch," said the top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura.

China, the reclusive state's only main ally, was more restrained in its response, but stressed the need to maintain peace on the divided peninsula.

"Protecting the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and North East Asia suits the joint interests of all parties and is the consistent expectation of the international community. This requires that all relevant parties take a constructive role," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters at a regular news briefing.

In April 2009, North Korea conducted a similar ballistic rocket launch that resulted in a new round of toughened U.N. sanctions, squeezing the secretive state's already troubled economy and deepening its isolation.

That launch, dismissed as a failure after the first stage fell into the Sea of Japan without placing a satellite in orbit, provoked outrage in Tokyo, which had threatened to shoot down any debris or rocket that threatened its territory.

Another test failed in similar circumstances in 1998.

Russia urged North Korea not to set up obstacles to the revival of six-nation talks over its nuclear program.

"We call on Pyongyang not to put itself in opposition to the international community, to refrain from actions that increase tension in the region and create additional complications for the relaunch of six-sided negotiations about the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula," the Foreign Ministry said.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters that such a rocket launch would likely be a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. French Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero added, "North Korea must give up this project, which goes against U.N. Security Council resolutions."

LONG-RANGE MISSILE THREAT

Washington says the North's long-range ballistic missile program is moving ahead quickly and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last year that the American mainland could come under threat within five years.

"The DPRK is to launch a working satellite, Kwangmyongsong-3, manufactured by itself with indigenous technology to mark the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il-sung," the North's official KCNA said, quoting a spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology.

KCNA said the launch would be conducted from a base near its border with China, indicating it would take place at a newly constructed missile testing site believed to be larger and more advanced than the site used to launch previous rockets.

The launch will be made southwards and debris generated from the flight will not impact neighboring countries, it said.

Pyongyang has been planning massive celebrations for years to mark Kim Il-sung's birthday on April 15, and has boasted the occasion would also mark its emergence on the international stage as a "strong and prosperous" nation.

The state's new young leader Kim Jong-un, who became the third member of the Kim family to lead the state after his father's death in December, has presented a militaristic image to his countrymen since taking power.

He has visited several military sites and been seen mixing with top brass in what analysts say is a move designed to win the all-powerful army's backing for the succession process.

The United States had planned to deliver 240,000 tons of food aid over the next year to the impoverished country, which suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated one million people.

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Laurence and Jumin Park in Seoul, Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Andrew Quinn in Washington, and Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Will Dunham)

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