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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Russia steps in as mediator as North Korea prepares to launch satellite

Observers warn that North Korea's space programme is a fig leaf for weapons tests 

This photo taken on July 29, 2017 shows people watching as coverage of an ICBM missile test is displayed on a screen in a public square in Pyongyang. Kim Won-jin / AFP
This photo taken on July 29, 2017 shows people watching as coverage of an ICBM missile test is displayed on a screen in a public square in Pyongyang. Kim Won-jin / AFP

Russia is ready to act as a mediator between North Korea and the United States if both parties are willing for it to play such a role, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.

The announcement comes just hours after a Seoul newspaper reported that North Korea was preparing to launch a satellite, as outside observers warn that the nuclear-armed regime's space programme is a fig leaf for weapons tests.

Moscow has long called for the two sides to hold negotiations aimed at reducing tensions over the nuclear and missile programme North Korea is pursuing in defiance of years of UN Security Council resolutions.

"Russia's readiness to clear the way for de-escalation is obvious," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a phone call with reporters.

Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called on Monday for Washington and Pyongyang to start negotiations, saying Russia was ready to facilitate such talks.

Though US diplomats have said they are pursuing a diplomatic solution, president Donald Trump has said Pyongyang must commit to giving up its nuclear weapons before any talks can begin.

Pyongyang is under multiple UN sanctions over its nuclear and missile tests and is prohibited from carrying out any launch using ballistic missile technology including satellites.

"Through various channels, we've recently learned that the North has completed a new satellite and named it Kwangmyongsong-5," the Joongang Ilbo daily reported, quoting a South Korean government source.

"Their plan is to put a satellite equipped with cameras and telecommunication devices into orbit," he said.

Pyongyang launched their Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite in February 2016, which most in the international community viewed as a disguised ballistic missile test.

A spokesman for the South Korean military joint chiefs of staff said there was "nothing out of ordinary at this moment" but added that Seoul was watching out for any provocative acts "including the test of a long-range missile disguised as a satellite launch".

The report came as the North's ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun reasserted the regime's right to launch satellites and develop its space technology.

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In a commentary published on Monday and titled "peaceful space programmes are sovereign countries' legitimate rights", the daily said Pyongyang's satellite launches "absolutely correspond" with international laws concerning space development.

At a UN General Assembly committee meeting in October, North Korea's deputy UN ambassador Kim In-ryong said his country has a 2016-2020 plan to develop "practical satellites that can contribute to the economic development and improvement of the people's living".

He stressed North Korea's right to produce and launch satellites "will not be changed just because the US denies it".

North Korea is believed to have successfully put a satellite into orbit in December 2012 after years of failures dating back to 1998 when it launched a pilot satellite and named it Kwangmyongsong-1.

Earlier this month, the Russian newspaper Rossiyskaia Gazeta quoted a Russian military expert, Vladimir Khrustalev, as saying that North Korea was expected to launch two satellites -- an Earth exploration satellite and a communications satellite -- in the near future.

Khrustalev made the remark after returning from his week-long trip to North Korea in mid-November when he met with representatives of the country's National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), the Russian daily said.

Tensions have soared as the isolated regime has staged a series of atomic and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests -- most recently on November 29.

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