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World News

North Korea gives notice of April rocket launch

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea has given global agencies notice of plans to launch a satellite, an official said on Thursday in a move Washington has branded “provocative” and views as a disguised long-range missile test.

North Korean soldiers (facing the camera) look at southern side as a South Korean soldier (C) stands guard at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas, in this picture taken from the South Korean side of the truce village on March 6, 2009. REUTERS/Ahn Young-joon/Pool

Pyongyang gave notice the launch would be from April 4 to 8 and that the first stage of the rocket would splash down in the Sea of Japan, Yonhap news agency quoted sources familiar with the notice as saying. The second stage is to splash down in the Pacific Ocean, the sources added.

Analysts said there were few technical differences between a satellite launch and a test of North Korea’s longest-range ballistic missile, which uses the same rocket and is called the Taepodong-2 outside of the North. The missile, whose only test flight failed in 2006, is designed to fly as far as Alaska.

The United States has said it could pursue a range of options against the North if it launches the missile, raising the possibility of squeezing it harder with U.N. sanctions imposed after separate missile and nuclear tests in 2006.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in New York he was concerned about Pyongyang’s plans to launch a “satellite or long-range missiles,” adding it “will threaten the peace and stability in the region.”

“Any launch of a long-range missile would, in our view, be a provocative act,” U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters in Washington. “The only thing that this act would do is to destabilize the region and, as you know, this region doesn’t need any further destabilization.”

The launch notice adds to mounting tension on the divided Korean peninsula, with Pyongyang saying it was on the edge of war, although many analysts doubt the North would send its poorly equipped military into a direct attack on the South.

North Korea said it had acceded to an international treaty on space exploration “as part of its preparations for launching ... an experimental communications satellite,” its KCNA news agency reported.

Lending a degree of credibility to Pyongyang’s pledge to stage a rocket launch, the International Maritime Organization said it had been contacted by the North about its plans.

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“We have received a letter and it contains dates, times and coordinates,” Lee Adamson, a spokesman with the IMO said by telephone from London, confirming the dates as April 4 to 8.

He said a notice would soon be issued to maritime vessels, adding the tests were scheduled to take place during daylight.

North Korea, which advised that the launch would take place from an east coast site it used for previous launches, said it had also notified the International Civil Aviation Organization so it could inform aircraft.

The U.S. Navy showed off to media on Thursday its Aegis-class destroyer USS Chaffee, which is in South Korea for joint South Korean-U.S. military drills and equipped to intercept missiles. Media reported last week that Japan and the United States might try to intercept any ballistic missile launched by the North.

The North says it would consider any shooting down of its rocket an act of war and has told South Korean commercial planes to keep away from its air space.

The North’s official media has also described itself as the victim of planned aggression by South Korea and its U.S. ally, calling the joint military drills: “madcap and reckless saber- rattling ... in a bid to make surprise pre-emptive strikes.”

Adding to Pyongyang’s fury, the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group is sailing off the south coast as part of the military exercises with the South, where the United States permanently stations about 28,000 troops.

FACE AT STAKE

North Korea shocked the region when it fired a Taepodong-1 over Japan in 1998.

Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Takeo Kawamura, told reporters in Tokyo a North Korean rocket launch would violate U.N. resolutions, adding, “It should cancel the launch.”

Experts said a launch looked inevitable, partly because the government wanted to flaunt a high-tech success at home and display its prowess to the international community from which it is almost completely isolated.

“They are putting themselves in a position where they have to keep going if they do not want to lose face,” said Brad Glosserman, of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum CSIS think tank.

Analysts said the North faced little risk of new punishments that could hurt its hard-line leadership because China, about its only major ally, and Russia would likely use their Security Council veto power to block extra sanctions.

South Korean officials said the North had been assembling the Taepodong-2 at a base on its east coast. The missile was still indoors but once set vertically and put on a launch pad, it could be fired in seven to 10 days, experts have said.

Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun and Jack Kim in Seoul; Yoko Nishikawa in Tokyo; Louis Charbonneau at the United Natiions and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher, Jeremy Laurence and Peter Cooney

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