'N. Korea loading rocket on launch pad'

Aerial images show preparations at missile site; US fears satellite launch is actually a weapons test.

n. korea parade 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
n. korea parade 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
North Korea is loading a Taepodong rocket on its east coast launch pad in anticipation of the launch of a communications satellite early next month, US officials say. US counterproliferation and intelligence officials have confirmed Japanese news reports of the expected launch between April 4 and 8. North Korea announced its intention to launch the satellite in February. Regional powers worry the claim is a cover for the launch of a long-range missile capable of reaching Alaska. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said earlier this month that all indications suggest North Korea will in fact launch a satellite. North Korea faked a satellite launch in 1998 to cloak a missile development test. In 2006, it launched a Taepodong-2 that blew up less than a minute into flight. Both the satellite launch rocket and long-range missile use similar technology, and arms control experts fear even a satellite launch would be a test toward eventually launching a long-range missile. South Korea, the US and Japan have urged North Korea to refrain from launching a satellite or missile, calling it a violation of a UN Security Council resolution barring the country from ballistic activity. North Korea insists it bears the right to develop its space program and on Tuesday warned the US, Japan and its allies not to interfere with the launch. Officials at the South Korea's National Intelligence Service and the Defense Ministry were not available for comment early Thursday in Seoul. South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac, said Wednesday after returning from talks with his Beijing counterparts, that a launch would trigger a response. "If North Korea launches a rocket, certain countermeasures are unavoidable," he said. He refused to elaborate, saying the measures, including any sanctions, would be discussed among US Security Council member nations. It probably won't be clear if the latest launch is a satellite or a missile test until footage can be analyzed after the event; the trajectory of a missile is markedly different from that of a satellite. Analysts have been watching for signs of a satellite or missile on the launch pad in Musudan-ni, the northeast coastal launch site. Satellite imagery from March 16 showed progress toward mounting a rocket, with a crane hovering over the launch pad, said Christian LeMiere, an editor at Jane's Intelligence Review in London. He said that once mounted, scientists would need at least a week to fuel and carry out tests before any launch. Images from earlier this month did not indicate the rocket or missile had been mounted, he said Wednesday.