North Korea boat 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
North Korea said it would launch its controversial rocket "soon," but the window for a launch Saturday passed without word of a liftoff, possibly because of strong winds.
Regional powers deployed warships and trained satellites on the communist country to monitor what they suspect will be a long-range missile test.
Preparations for launching "an experimental communications satellite" were complete, state-run media said in a dispatch Saturday morning, adding: "The satellite will be launched soon."
However, the day's stated 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. time-frame passed without any report of a launch, possibly due to relatively strong winds reported in the area around the northeastern North Korean launch pad in Musudan-ri.
Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the private think tank Sejong Institute near Seoul, said winds likely stopped the North from launching the rocket, which is similar to one that in 2006 fizzled less than a minute after takeoff.
"North Korea cannot afford any technical failure this time," he said. "North Korea wouldn't fire the rocket if there's even a minor concern about the weather."
North Korea has announced its intention to send a satellite into space sometime between Saturday and Wednesday during daytime hours.
But Washington, Seoul and Tokyo suspect North Korea's real motive is to test its long-range missile technology - a worrying development because North Korea has acknowledged it has nuclear weapons and has repeatedly broken promises to shelve its nuclear program or halt rocket tests.
US President Barack Obama said Friday that a launch would be "provocative" and prompt the US to "take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that it can't threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity."
"Respective nations made efforts to urge North Korea to refrain from the launch. But if North Korea really plans to launch, it is very regrettable," Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone told reporters Saturday.
In a meeting Friday, Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, that the "rocket launch would negatively affect peace and stability in Northeast Asia and there should be a discussion among related countries" after it takes place, Lee's office said.
UN Security Council diplomats, anticipating a weekend emergency session, said a draft resolution was circulating that could reaffirm and tighten enforcement of the demands and sanctions of a resolution passed in October 2006 after a North Korean nuclear test. Resolution 1718 banned North Korea from ballistic missile activity.
Stephen Bosworth, the US envoy on North Korea, said it would face consequences if the launch goes ahead.
But a strong united response might be elusive since China and Russia hold veto power in the council and could argue that nonmilitary space missions are exempt.
Taking no chances, Japan has deployed warships and Patriot missile interceptors off its northern coast to shoot down any wayward rocket parts that the North has said might fall over the area as the first and second stages fall into the sea on either side of the country.
Tokyo has said it is only protecting its territory and has no intention of trying to shoot down the rocket itself, but North Korea accused Japan of inciting militarism at home to justify developing a nuclear weapons program of its own.
North Korea threatened retaliation against any efforts to intercept the rocket, telling Japan such a move would mean "war," and said American high-altitude U-2 spy planes would be shot down if they intrude into its airspace.
With tensions rising, Bosworth said he was prepared to go to North Korea after the "dust from the missiles settles" in order to restart six-nation negotiations aimed at getting the North to abandon its nuclear program.
North Korea also is holding two American journalists accused of crossing into the country illegally from China and engaging in "hostile acts." Euna Lee and Laura Ling, reporters for former US Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture, were detained last month.
A South Korean who works at a joint economic zone in the northern border town of Kaesong also remained in North Korean custody Saturday for allegedly denouncing the North's political system and inciting female North Korean employees to flee the communist country.
Some 500 other South Koreans working at factories in Kaesong planned to return to the South on Saturday, heeding a government call on citizens to be cautious in light of the "grave" tensions between the two Koreas, said Kim Ho-nyeon, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry.