By Kim Young-jin
North Korea pushed forward Thursday with its plan to launch a satellite from a long-range rocket next month, disclosing new details even as the United States said a planned shipment of food aid had been suspended over the move.
A report by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) specified that the Stalinist state would allow foreign experts and reporters to visit the launch site before observing the lift-off from the General Satellite Control and Command Center in Pyongyang.
Further raising concerns, Japan’s Tokyo Shimbun reported that the North had begun fueling the rocket on the launch pad in Dongchang-ri in the country’s northwest, citing sources.
Seoul, Washington and others believe the launch is cover for a ballistic missile test that could advance the country toward developing a missile to carry a nuclear warhead. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said it would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The launch is slated to take place between April 12 and 16, timed for the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder Kim Il-sung on April 15.
The KCNA report, citing the state space agency, said the satellite would weigh 100 kilograms and orbit for two years at an altitude of 500 kilometers.
“We will organize special visits... to show with transparency the peaceful, scientific and technological nature of the satellite,” an official of the Korean Committee for Space Technology was quoted as saying by the KNCA.
Analysts suspect the launch is tied to the regime’s efforts to bolster the reputation of inexperienced leader Kim Jong-un, who is taking power after the December death of his father, Kim Jong-il. The report did not say who would be invited to observe the launch but addedthat the satellite would “assess the distribution of forests and natural resources” of the country and collect data necessary for weather forecasts and other science-related activities.
But the launch will come at a cost.
On Wednesday, a U.S. official said the Obama administration had been forced to suspend a food package because the announcement of the launch demonstrated Pyongyang’s willingness to backtrack on diplomatic agreements, including those over the monitoring of aid.
Peter Lavoy, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs, said during a congressional hearing that Washington has “no confidence that they would actually abide by the understandings” of the agreement.
The announcement of the launch caught the region off guard as it came just weeks after the regime had agreed to halt uranium enrichment at its Yongbyon plant and place a moratorium on long-range missile tests in exchange for nutritional aid.
The North is widely suspected of diverting food aid for military or political purposes.
Washington says it made clear a satellite launch would be a “deal breaker.” But Pyongyang insists it maintained during negotiations that long-range missile tests did not include launching satellites for peaceful purposes.
The North claimed in 2009 it fired a rocket that put a satellite into orbit. But Seoul and Washington said it failed to do so and that it was meant to further Pyongyang’s weapons program.
Why the North would announce the launch after making the deal remains up for debate. Some suggest it could reflect competing interest with Pyongyang between hardliners and diplomats or Kim Jong-un’s inexperience in handling overseeing policy.
The plan has thrown a wrench into momentum to restart negotiations over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
In addition to Seoul and Washington, Tokyo and Moscow have reaffirmed that the launch would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, while China said it was working to persuade its ally to refrain from the act. Those countries, along with Pyongyang, comprise the six-party talks on denuclearizing the North.
The talks have been stalled since 2009 when Pyongyang walked away over U.N. sanctions in response to its nuclear and missile tests.