Tensions have escalated in Seoul and Tokyo after North Korea placed a rocket on a launch pad that they plan to test fire between April 4 and 8. But military experts in Seoul said that technically, the rocket could be launched as early as this weekend.
South Korea maintains that the rocket poses a "serious threat" to its national security and is a "provocative action," warning it would seek punishment through international sanctions at the United Nations Security Council.
Japan scrambled to prepare for possible damage from falling debris should the test launch fail. North Korea notified the International Maritime Organization March 12 that waters off northern Akita and Iwate prefectures would be a risk zone for falling fragments, according to the launch's projected trajectory.
The Disaster Management Office in Akita Prefectural Government told ABC News that "the last thing to do is to scare people" by closing offices and schools, but it is cautioning citizens to stay calm and wait for government instructions.
The Japanese Defense Ministry said Thursday that some batteries of PAC-3 land-to-air missiles will be shifted from Tokyo to the northern part of Japan to intercept fragments that may fall. A pair of Aegis destroyers carrying missile interceptors is also in nearby waters.
China avoided comment, according to Kyodo News, as to whether it would join the international community to consider sanctions. "At this stage, we hope the countries involved will maintain restraint and cool-headedness," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
North Korea Claims Test Is Part of a 'Peaceful' Space Program
But Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have said that the launch is a cover to test the Taepodong-2 missile, which has a range of up to 3,852 miles and is capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States. "Whether it is a space launch or a missile launch, either way, even though the North Koreans have made a public declaration that this is a space launch, it would be a violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a state trip to Mexico stood firm on Wednesday: "We have made it very clearthat the North Koreans pursue this pathway at a cost and with consequences to the six-party talks which we would like to see revived and moving forward as quickly as possible."
Many experts in Seoul said there is very little chance that North Korea would give up its planned launch. "I don't see North Koreans shaking on their knees at the words of the consequences of the missile launch. They're going to do it anyway. The intentions were always there," said Jung-Hoon Lee, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. "They want to do this as a show of force."
The launch is also important for the regime and the survival of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, which analysts said is extremely insecure. At age 67, Kim is in deteriorating health, according to reports, and he suffered a stroke last August. He still does not have an official successor, although his third son, Kim Jong-Un, 26, is seen as the most likely candidate.
"Kim Jong Il probably wants to make sure that this leverage in dealing with the outside world, particularly the United States, remains intact, when it comes time for one of his sons to rule," said Lee.
Noriko Namiki contributed to this report from Tokyo.