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Saturday launch likely for North Korea rocket, says analysts

Several countries across the Asia-Pacific remain on alert as North Korea prepares for a rocket launch seen by many as a ballistic missile test.

BEIJING // Several countries across the Asia-Pacific remain on alert as North Korea prepares for a rocket launch seen by many as a ballistic missile test.

Analysts say take-off is most likely on Saturday morning and officials in several countries have been ready to respond amid concerns over the risk of falling debris from the launch.

South Korea and the Philippines were among the countries that ordered aeroplanes to divert away from the rocket's likely flight path. The launch of the Unha-3 rocket, said by North Korea to be carrying a satellite that will monitor natural resources, is seen by many countries as a ballistic missile test that would breach UN Security Council resolutions.

Japan's lower house of parliament yesterday unanimously passed a resolution calling for the launch's cancellation and the prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, told journalists his country wanted "to seek their self-restraint until the last-minute". He held discussions with a team managing Japan's response to the planned launch. Japan has prepared missile defence equipment and pledged to intercept debris that could land on its territory.

In southern Japan, residents have been told to remain indoors once the launch happens.

"We want to be fully prepared for any possible contingency," Mr Noda said.

The western launch site North Korea is using for the first time means the rocket will be farther from Japan than during previous launches.

The rocket's first stage is expected to land in the Yellow Sea between China and South Korea, with the second stage likely to fall into the sea north-east of the Philippines. Manila has told shipping to avoid this area.

North Korea is launching the rocket to mark Sunday's 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung, whose grandson Kim Jong-un became leader in December on the death of Kim Jong-il. The 20-something Kim Jong-un took on further titles this week to consolidate his fledgling leadership.

With fuelling of the rocket starting on Wednesday, tomorrow is the most likely launch day, according to Brian Bridges, a political analyst at Hong Kong's Lingnan University who has written several books on the Koreas.

"Once they've fuelled the rocket, you cannot leave the fuel in for too long without there being technical problems. They will probably launch on Saturday morning because they can announce it on the Saturday evening news as that's the eve of the anniversary," he said.

The United States, Russia, South Korea and other countries have condemned the launch plans, which have led to the cancellation of American proposals to send food aid to the impoverished north.

With overseas monitoring agencies having failed to detect North Korean satellites in the past, despite previous claims of successful launches, reports have questioned whether Unha-3 is even carrying a functional satellite.

North Korea is believed to have enough fissile material to produce multiple nuclear warheads, but is thought to lack the technology to produce long-range nuclear missiles.

dbardsley@thenational.ae

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