SINGAPORE - The clock heard ticking around the world has Southeast Asia on edge as North Korea prepares a rocket launch, possibly by the end of the week.
North Korea claims the 90-ton Unha-3 rocket is simply a weather satellite, but the U.S. is concerned the launch is a secret attempt to test long-range ballistic missiles that could one day reach the West.
The rocket will be launched from North Korea's new Sohae Satellite Launching Station in the northern part of the country, near its border with China. It is expected to travel south by southwest, passing by South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. It is expected to splash down in the waters off the coast of Australia.
But officials are concerned that faulty technology could compromise the rocket's trajectory, resulting in a possible debris shower over inhabited areas. Maximo Sacro Jr., of the Philippine Astronomical Society, said at a briefing at the National Disaster Rick Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), "It is important that we know the time of the launch. That is the bottom line."
Exact timing will allow officials in the Philippines to estimate when the rocket's two boosters will disengage. The first is expected to do so very quickly and land in South Korean territory. The second booster is expected to disengage at a much higher altitude about three to four minutes after the first, said Sacro. It is expected to take another three to four hours before is crashes in Philippine territory.
Experts warn that because North Korea is so secretive about its technology, there is no way to know precisely how sophisticated or reliable the rocket's guidance system is. Disaster officials in the Philippines are warning local governments to prepare for emergency evacuations in case the rocket strays from its projected flight path and debris falls on land.
As of this morning, the Philippine government put a no-fly and no-sail zone into effect in northeastern Luzon. Officials do not expect the rocket to disintegrate into pieces, but are preparing for emergency measures. The NDRRMC director said the agency is liaising with the U.S., Japan and South Korea to monitor developments. Many countries are asking the U.S. for help to track the rocket from liftoff. Both Japan and South Korea have said they are prepared to shoot down any rocket that strays into its territory.
China, the country with arguably the most influence over North Korea, insists it has little or no influence over the country's nuclear weapons program. It will only go so far as to urge "caution." While the West wants North Korea to suspend its program entirely, partly so that North Korea will cease sharing technology with countries such as Syria, China's motivations are less clear.
China profits from providing North Korea with industrial machinery and other items. But beyond that, Bruce Klingner, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told the New York Times, "China wants most a calm Asia to improve its own economy."
North Korea's provocative actions threaten that priority, he said. Klingner told the New York Times that there is a rift in today's China between the "new school" and the "old school." The old school sees North Korea as a buffer from South Korea, a country the new school sees as a decreasing threat. For the new school North Korea is somewhat of a liability in the new world, where South Korea's strong economy could help China maintain the economic growth it so desperately wants to sustain, especially in the context of a stalled world economy.
Still, it is highly unlikely that China would support any further statement from the United Nations Security Council imposing fresh sanctions against North Korea following a launch.