U.S. warns N.Korea satellite launch could scrap nuclear, food deals

WASHINGTON Sat Mar 17, 2012 2:03am IST

Models of a North Korean Scud-B missile (R) and South Korean missiles are displayed at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul March 16, 2012. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

Models of a North Korean Scud-B missile (R) and South Korean missiles are displayed at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul March 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Jae-Won

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States warned North Korea on Friday its plan to launch a satellite with a long-range rocket could violate its February agreement on a nuclear moratorium and scuttle U.S. plans to resume food aid.

The State Department swiftly condemned Pyongyang's announcement of plans for the satellite launch next month, which it said could torpedo nascent efforts to restart broader nuclear negotiations with the secretive state.

"If they were to go forward with this launch it is very hard to imagine how we would be able to move forward with a regime whose word we have no confidence in," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), said the satellite launch would mark the centenary of founder Kim Il-sung's birth next month.

Pyongyang has provided few details on the new satellite, but has said it will be a "working" satellite developed using indigenous technology.

But the United States and others said the launch plan involves ballistic missile technology explicitly banned by a U.N. resolution.

North Korea conducted a similar ballistic rocket launch in April 2009, which resulted in toughened U.N. sanctions that put further pressure on its already troubled economy and deepened its diplomatic isolation.

The North said recently it would suspend long-range missile testing as part of its talks with the United States, which are aimed at reviving six-nation aid-for-disarmament talks on North Korea's shadowy nuclear program.

A DEAL BREAKER

Nuland emphasized that any launch would abrogate a deal announced jointly by Pyongyang and Washington on February 29 under which North Korea had agreed to stop nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and long-range missile launches and to allow checks by nuclear inspectors.

"We made clear unequivocally that we considered that any satellite launch would be a deal breaker. On the front end they understood that," Nuland said.

A launch could force the United States to halt plans for food aid, which 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, she said.

"Were we to have a launch it would create obviously tensions and that would make the implementation of any kind of a nutritional agreement quite difficult. It would very much imperil the environment," Nuland said.

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.

It has since endured chronic food shortages caused in part by sanctions imposed over its nuclear and missile programs.

U.S. officials have been in touch with their counterparts in the six party negotiations - China, Japan, South Korea and Russia - to urge them to pressure Pyongyang to scrap the planned launch, Nuland said.

Discussions on returning International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to North Korea, and on the implementation of the food deal, were on hold, she said.

"We're going to take a pause here," Nuland said. "We need more reassurance now."

A RARE HEADS-UP

U.S. officials have repeatedly said February's nuclear agreement was a "modest first step" in negotiations, and noted that North Korea has a long history of ripping up agreements and backing out of deals.

Nuland said that in this case, however, Pyongyang had warned Washington ahead of time about the planned announcement, signaling on Thursday through the "New York channel" - North Korea's mission to the United Nations - that it was moving ahead with the satellite launch.

Korea expert Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations said the North Korean advance notice was rare, and could signal an effort by Pyongyang to manage the fallout from its satellite decision.

"It is interesting that they gave a heads-up," Snyder said, although he added that it remained unclear whether Pyongyang could now reverse its satellite decision during an uncertain period of political transition.

"If you work with the old template, it would be very unlikely that they would turn the decision around," Snyder said. "This could be an interesting experiment, and a test of where things stand now in Pyongyang."

The Pentagon warned on Friday that a North Korean rocket launch would be destabilizing to the Asia-Pacific region and urged Pyongyang to reconsider its plan.

"We would consider it destabilizing behavior," Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said. "And we urge the North Korean leadership to reconsider this decision."

(Additional reporting by David Alexander; editing by Vicki Allen and Todd Eastham)

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