SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea and Japan warned North Korea on Wednesday it would still violate U.N. resolutions if it tried to put a satellite into space, just days ahead of a planned rocket launch both see as a disguised missile test.
The rocket appears to have a bulb-shaped tip that gives credence to Pyongyang’s claim it will carry a satellite, U.S. defense officials said on Tuesday.
The United States, Japan and South Korea say they see no difference between a satellite and a missile launch because they use the same long-range rocket, the Taepodong-2, which is designed to carry a warhead as far as Alaska.
Any attempt to punish North Korea after the planned April 4-8 launch will infuriate Pyongyang, which has threatened to restart its plant that makes arms grade plutonium and also quit nuclear disarmament talks if the United Nations takes action.
“Whether it is a satellite or a missile, it is still a violation of U.N. sanctions,” a South Korea Foreign Ministry official said.
Takeshi Akamatsu, assistant press secretary at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, added: “We consider this would be a breach of the resolution and thus of international law.”
U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a commercial satellite image of the Musudan-ri missile test site showed a Taepodong-2 with a bulb-shaped payload cover, consistent with a satellite payload, rather than a warhead.
North Korea was hit with U.N. sanctions barring it from ballistic missile tests and halting its trade in weapons of mass destruction after it tried unsuccessfully to test the Taepodong-2 in July 2006 and conducted a nuclear test a few months later.
Several missile-interceptor ships with sophisticated radar from Japan, the United States and South Korea are expected to be in waters along the rocket’s flight path but there are no plans to intercept it unless it threatens their territories.
North Korea, which said any attempt to shoot down the rocket would be an act of war, issued a new threat on Wednesday.
“(Our army) will relentlessly shoot down U.S. reconnaissance aircraft if they intrude into our territory and meddle with our peaceful satellite launch preparation,” it said in a state radio broadcast monitored in Seoul.
U.S. spy planes regularly fly in the South’s airspace near the border to keep an eye on the North’s troop movements.
The International Crisis Group think tank said in a report that if the outside world overreacted, it could harm talks aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear program and rattle security in North Asia, which accounts for one sixth of the global economy.
“In the worst case, it could risk a war with potentially devastating damage to South Korea, Japan and the world economy,” the report said.
Analysts said they expect China, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council and the closest thing Pyongyang can claim as a major ally, to block any new sanctions or allow for the tighter enforcement of existing ones.
The launch is certain to feature on the sidelines of the G20 summit this week in London when U.S. President Barack Obama meets global leaders, including President Hu Jintao of China.
The launch poses a major risk for the cash-strapped North.
A failure would deal a blow to missile sales, one of its few successful export businesses, and embarrass North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, 67, whose suspected stroke in August raised questions about his leadership of Asia’s only communist dynasty.
“(It) is the best possible advertisement they could make to let the rogues of the world know that they have a missile that they might want to buy,” said Peter Beck, an expert in Korean affairs at American University in Washington.
The North’s launch site is watched by U.S. spy satellites, which are looking for signs the North has started fuelling the rocket, beginning a process experts said could lead to a launch in as early as three days.
Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo, Kim Junghyun in Seoul and David Morgan in Washington; Editing by Dean Yates