SEOUL Poor weather and planning may have forced North Korea to delay the launch of a long-range rocket Saturday, officials in Seoul said, after Pyongyang reported preparations were complete and lift-off would take place soon.
The United States, Japan and South Korea see the launch as the test of a long-range missile designed to carry a warhead to U.S. territory and say it would violate U.N. resolutions.
North Korea has said the launch would take place between April 4-8 from the hours of 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. EDT. It has tested the rocket known as the Taepodong-2 only once before, in 2006, when it exploded less than a minute into flight.
Impoverished North Korea, which for years has used military threats to wring concessions from regional powers, has said it is putting a satellite into orbit as part of a peaceful space program and threatened war if the rocket was intercepted.
"We thought the launch was likely today, but weather conditions at the rocket base may not have been favorable," South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted a presidential Blue House official as saying. A separate government source told Yonhap that the North's preparations appeared to be insufficient.
South Korea's meteorological agency said the general area around the North Korean missile base was under mostly cloudy skies with occasionally strong winds. A slightly clearer day is forecast for Sunday and Monday, with less wind.
Experts have said clear visibility would help North Korea, with limited radar capabilities, monitor the flight.
It also needs good weather to shoot footage that analysts said would be played on state TV if the launch worked.
Analysts said a successful launch would help leader Kim Jong-il, 67, shore up support after a suspected stroke in August raised questions about his grip on power.
The North's KCNA news agency earlier said preparations were complete, adding: "The satellite will be launched soon."
OBAMA PLEDGES ACTION
U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday the international community would take action if North Korea went ahead with the launch to show Pyongyang it could not act with impunity.
"We will work with all interested partners in the international community to take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that they cannot threaten the safety and stability of other countries with impunity," Obama said.
Japan earlier withdrew an announcement that North Korea had appeared to have launched the rocket. The prime minister's office said its announcement had been a mistake.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told reporters it appeared unlikely the rocket launch would occur Saturday.
With an estimated range of 6,700 km (4,200 miles), the rocket being prepared is supposed to fly over Japan, dropping boosters to its west and east on a path that runs southwest of Hawaii.
Japan has sent missile-intercepting ships along the rocket's flight path and said it could shoot down any debris such as falling booster stages that threaten to strike its territory.
Japan, the United States and South Korea said they have no plans to shoot down the rocket unless it threatens their land.
AFTER THE DUST SETTLES
Financial markets in South Korea, accustomed to the North's military taunts over the years, have shrugged off the impending launch. The last test led to a temporary fall in the Japanese yen, a drop in Seoul shares and small increase in gold prices.
A U.S. envoy suggested the launch may be a foregone conclusion and said he hoped to bring the North back to talks on ending its nuclear programs.
"We will be ... working very closely with our partners to ensure that after the dust of the missiles settles a bit, we get back to the longer-term priority of the ... six-party talks," Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, told reporters in Washington.
While saying the talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States were central to efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program, he said Washington was ready for direct contact with Pyongyang at any time.
The United States views the planned rocket launch as a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution passed in 2006 after Pyongyang's nuclear and other missile tests.
That resolution, number 1718, demands North Korea "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program."
U.N. Security Council diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity that no country was considering imposing new sanctions but the starting point could be discussing a resolution for the tougher enforcement of earlier ones.
Both Russia and China, the latter the nearest the reclusive North has to a major ally, have made clear they would block new sanctions by the Council, where they have veto power.
(Additional reporting Linda Sieg and Rodney Joyce in Tokyo and Kim Yeon-hee in Seoul; Editing by Dean Yates)