In another move that is heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula, North Korea announced Tuesday that "full-scale preparations are under way" to launch a satellite from a facility at Hwadae, on the northeast coast.
But the international community considers the impending launch as instead another test of the Taepodong-2, a long-range missile, and has warned that it would violate a United Nations Security Council resolution.
North Korea's announcement delivered through its official Korean Central News Agency did not say when the launch would take place but claimed that "If this satellite is successfully launched, the space science technology of our country will take another major step for the nation to become an economic powerhouse."
Pyongyang's latest statement implies that they are setting up radars and assessment equipment, but satellite imagery shows the suspected long-range missile is yet to be mounted on the launch pad. "Once it has been mounted, it will take about a week to fuel the rocket," said Baek Seung-joo, director at Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "It is only a matter of time but politically the most likely period would be around their parliamentary elections on March 8 or around their Supreme People's Assembly on April 8."
If successful, it will have capacity to carry a nuclear warhead to as far as Hawaii and Alaska, posing a direct threat to the United States territory for the first time. The communist state test-launched a Taepodong 2 in July 2006, but the rocket exploded 40 seconds after launch, creating an international embarrassment for North Korea.
Experts have warned that North Korea may be testing an advanced version of Taepodong 2 this time, which is capable of striking the West Coast of the United States. "Because they failed last time, the North is all the more desperate to fire this successfully into orbit and claim that it was after all a satellite," said Paik Hak-soon, senior fellow at Sejong Institute in Seoul.
Under a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted after Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea has been banned from any ballistic missile activity. But analysts said that Pyongyang has been continuously working on increasing accuracy of its missiles from short range to long range since that failure. "Politically, they are cornered," said Byungki Kim, a professor of politics and international relations at Korea University. "Their attempts to create tensions with belligerent war threats to South Korea only backfired."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned North Korea against any provocative moves on her Asia tour last week. But in desperate need for international aid, North Korea is "determined to up the stakes even more by test-launching this long-range missile," said Kim.
North Korea is believed to have secured enough plutonium to make six to seven nuclear bombs. But experts said its technology is not capable of preparing the nuclear material so it can be mounted on a missile warhead. "In that sense, there's no reason why we should feel threatened today," said Lee Sang Sin, senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. "This is the way North Korea cries out for attention. They're saying, hey, we're here, we need to talk."
Earlier on Monday, South Korea's Defense Ministry reported that North Korea had recently deployed a new type of medium-range ballistic missile that could reach northern Australia and the U.S. territory of Guam.
In a biannual defense assessment of North Korea, the ministry said the North has also bolstered its special warfare forces by 60,000, making 180,000 troops out of its 1.19 million now trained for nighttime, mountain and street fighting.
The report also noted concerns of a possible armed clash near the disputed sea border between the two Koreas. It said North's Navy forces have been recently deploying more submarines and developing new ground-to-ship and ship-to-ship missiles near the west seas of the peninsula.
Jessica Kim, Qree Yon, Youmi Kim contributed to this report.