TONGCHANG-RI, North Korea – North Korean space officials have moved all three stages of a long-range rocket into position for a controversial launch, vowing Sunday to push ahead with their plan in defiance of international warnings against violating a ban on missile activity.
At the same time, there were new indications that the North is also ramping up for a nuclear test – a move that could send tensions in the region and around the world into a dangerous new phase.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency says North Korea appears to be preparing for a third nuclear weapons test, Stars and Stripes reported.
The report quotes an unidentified intelligence source as saying satellite images show workers digging a new tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the northeast. The North conducted two previous nuclear tests in tunnels at the site — first in October of 2006 and again in May of 2009.
The source told Yonhap it appears the tunnel work is in its final stage.
North Korea agreed in February to stop nuclear tests, uranium enrichment and long-range rocket launches. Days later, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced U.S. plans to provide the impoverished North with more food aid.
The agreement quickly unraveled when Pyongyang announced plans to launch a long-range rocket this month, in defiance of United Nations resolutions. Western journalists allowed to visit the launch site said Sunday the rocket has been installed on the platform.
Pyongyang says the planned launch is aimed at placing a weather satellite into space. But other countries — including the United States, Japan and South Korea — view it as a disguised missile test.
North Korea has said the launch — set to occur between April 12 and April 16 — is to commemorate the 100th birthday of its late founding leader, Kim Il Sung.
Sunday, the head of the North Korean launch site told Western reporters the launch was planned “long ago.” Jang Myong Jin also discounted suspicions that the rocket was a ballistic missile, saying such a missile would need be hidden in an underground chamber rather than exposed on a launch platform.
The United States, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan have jointly negotiated with the North to end its nuclear program. But those talks broke down in late 2009, when Pyongyang expelled international inspectors and then conducted its second nuclear test.
The Associated Press was among foreign news agencies allowed a firsthand look at preparations under way at the coastal Sohae Satellite Station in northwestern North Korea.
North Korea has tested two atomic devices, but is not believed to have mastered the technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range missile.
On Sunday, reporters were taken by train to North Korea's new launch pad in the hamlet of Tongchang-ri in North Phyongan province, about 50 kilometers (35 miles) south of the border town of Sinuiju along North Korea's west coast.
Japan and South Korea said they are prepared to shoot down any parts of the rocket that threaten to fall in their territory -- a move North Korea's Foreign Ministry warned would be considered a declaration of war.
The launch is scheduled to take place three years after North Korea's last announced attempt to send a satellite into space, a liftoff condemned by the U.N. Security Council. North Korea walked away from nuclear disarmament negotiations in protest, and conducted an atomic test weeks later that drew tightened U.N. sanctions.
Kim Jong Un took power following the December death of his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il, and is expected to assume more top posts during high-profile political and parliamentary meetings later this week -- a step analysts say will formally complete the country's second hereditary power transfer.
The 100-kilogram (220-pound) satellite is designed to send back images and information that will be used for weather forecasts as well as surveys of North Korea's natural resources, Jang said. He said a western launch was chosen to avoid showering neighboring nations with debris.
Two previous satellites, also named Kwangmyongsong, or Bright Shining Star, were experimental, but the third will be operational, he said.
China's foreign minister said Sunday that Beijing is troubled by North Korea's launch plan and has urged more diplomacy. Yang Jiechi said he discussed the launch plan during trilateral talks with his counterparts from Seoul and Tokyo in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo.
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