PYONGYANG // North Korea said yesterday it was ready to go ahead with its proposed long-range rocket launch, a move that has sparked condemnation from Japan, South Korea and Russia and a plea from China, its main ally, for calm.
The announcement came as South Korea prepared for todya’s parliamentary elections.
The rocket’s assembly was completed after the satellite payload was installed, a space official said. “All the assembly and preparations of the satellite launch are done,” Ryu Kum-chol, the deputy director of the space development department, told foreign journalists in Pyongyang.
The launch of the Unha-3 rocket, which North Korea says will merely put a weather satellite into space, breaches UN sanctions imposed to prevent Pyongyang from developing a missile that could carry a nuclear warhead.
Japan has deployed missile batteries in Tokyo and dispatched destroyers as North Korea makes final preparations for the launch.
Patriot missiles were deployed on Saturday at the defence ministry in downtown Tokyo and at two other bases in the region to protect the greater Tokyo area.
“The kind of launch that North Korea says it will conduct is a violation of UN Security Council resolutions,” Naoki Tanaka, Japan’s defence minister, said yesterday, reiterating the position of his government. “As there is a concern that it may damage the peace and stability of our region, it will be a regrettable situation if it occurs.”
The intended path of the rocket as announced by North Korea would see it briefly fly over an area near relatively small islands in Japan’s far south-west near Taiwan. Still, Japan is taking no chances and the country’s military, the Self-Defense Forces, have deployed missile interceptors on both sea and land.
“If North Korea launches a missile, Japan will consider the next step in cooperation with international society including the UN Security Council,” the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, said.
Airlines have re-routed flights to avoid the rocket’s path.
The North Korean expert Masao Okonogi said Japan’s missile deployment was politically necessary to calm the public over the rocket launch.
“The step that Japan has taken was aimed at giving psychological assurance to the public that the government has gone so far to deal with North Korea,” Mr Okonogi, a professor at Japan’s Kyushu University, said.
He warned, however, that North Korea could carry out another nuclear test in response to international condemnation of its rocket launch.
The launch, scheduled to take place between tomorrow and Monday, will coincide with the anniversary celebrations of the country’s founder and North Korea says that it is its sovereign right to launch the rocket.
“The launch of Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite is the gift from our people to our great leader, comrade Kim Il-sung, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, so this cannot be a missile test,” Mr Ryu said.
The West says it is a disguised ballistic missile test by a country which walked out of so-called six-party disarmament talks three years ago.
South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North after their 1950-53 conflict ended with a truce, not a treaty, warned Pyongyang it would deepen its isolation if it went ahead with the launch.
Security sources in Seoul, citing satellite images, have said North Korea is also preparing a third nuclear test following the rocket launch, something it did in 2009, a move bound to trigger further condemnation from the West.
“It is disappointing that the North is forcing its people to endure sacrifices with this provocative action and is bringing isolation and sanctions to itself from the international community,” the South’s Unification Ministry said.
Polls show South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s party may lose control of parliament to an opposition coalition that has pledged to improve ties with its northern neighbour. Opposition lawmakers accused the government of using the intelligence report to influence the elections.
“The timing is impeccable,” said Park Young Ho, senior research fellow and director at Korea Institute for National Unification.“Kim Jong Un is taking advantage of the domestic North Korean celebrations of Kim Il Sung to aggressively influence South Korean elections.”
Russia, a former backer of North Korea which has boosted economic ties with Pyongyang recently, condemned the launch.
“We consider Pyongyang’s decision to conduct a launch of a satellite an example of disregard for UN Security Council decisions,” the Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said.
The rocket will bisect a sea that separates South Korea and China and its flight path will take it towards the Philippines where a second stage of the rocket is due to come down in waters close to the archipelago.
China, which backs North Korea economically and diplomatically, reiterated its pleas for calm and said it had “repeatedly expressed its concern and anxiety about the developments”, the foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, told a press briefing in Beijing.
* Reuters with additional reporting by Dow Jones and Agence France-Press