North Korea may postpone the controversial launch of a long-range rocket that had been slated for liftoff as early as this week, state media said yesterday, as international pressure on Pyongyang to cancel the provocative move intensified.
Scientists have been pushing forward with the final preparations for the launch from a west coast site — slated to take place as early as today — but are considering “readjusting” the timing, an unidentified spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology told North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
It was unclear whether diplomatic intervention or technical glitches were behind the delay. A brief KCNA dispatch said scientists and technicians were discussing whether to set new launch dates, but did not elaborate.
Word of a possible delay comes just days after satellite photos indicated that snow may have slowed launch preparations, and as officials in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow and elsewhere urged North Korea to cancel a liftoff widely seen as a violation of bans against missile activity.
Commercial satellite imagery taken by GeoEye on Wednesday and published on the 38 North and North Korea Tech Web sites showed the Sohae site northwest of Pyongyang covered with snow. The road from the main assembly building to the launch pad showed no fresh tracks, indicating that the snow may have stalled the preparations.
However, analysts believe rocket preparations would have been completed on time for liftoff as early as today.
North Korea earlier this month announced that it would launch a three-stage rocket mounted with a satellite from its Sohae station southeast of Sinuiju sometime between today and Dec. 22. Pyongyang calls it a peaceful bid to send an observational satellite into space, its second such attempt this year.
The launch announcement captured global headlines because of its timing: South Korea and Japan hold key elections this month, US President Barack Obama begins his second term next month and China has just formed a new leadership. North Koreans also have begun a mourning period for late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who died on Dec. 17 last year.
Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington was “deeply concerned” about the launch and urged foreign ministers from NATO and Russia to demand Pyongyang cancel it.
The US and others said the launch would violate UN Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from nuclear and missile activity because the rocket shares the same technology used for firing long-range missiles.
North Korea has unveiled missiles designed to target US soil and has tested two atomic bombs in recent years, but has not shown yet that it has mastered the technology for mounting a nuclear warhead onto a long-range missile. Six-nation negotiations to offer North Korea much needed aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament have been stalled since 2009.
China, the North’s main ally and aid provider, voiced its “concern” after North Korea declared its plans. It acknowledged North Korea’s right to develop its space program, but said that had to be harmonized with restrictions, including those set by the Security Council.
In Seoul, officials at the South Korean Ministry of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday said they could not immediately find what might be behind the possible delay.
North Korea may hold off if Washington actively engages Pyongyang in dialogue and promises to ship stalled food assistance to the country, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
In February, the US agreed to provide 240,000 tonnes of food aid to North Korea in exchange for a freeze in nuclear and missile activities. The deal collapsed after North Korea attempted to launch a long-range rocket in April that broke up seconds after liftoff.
Analyst Baek Seung-joo of the South Korean state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul said China must have sent a “very strong” message calling for the North to cancel the launch plans.
“North Korea won’t say it would delay the launch due to foreign pressure so that’s why they say scientists and technicians are considering delaying it,” he said.