N Korea: Touch our rocket and 'face thunderbolt of fire'

North Korea’s military threatened immediate retaliation today if “even the slightest effort” was made to intercept a rocket it plans to launch in the next few days.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency quoted its military as specifically mentioning Japan, the United States and South Korea, threatening a “thunderbolt of fire” if Japan took any action against what Pyongyang claimed was a launch to put a communications satellite into orbit.

The statement told the United States to withdraw its armed forces in what appeared to be a reference to US warships that have reportedly set sail to monitor the launch from international waters.

Earlier, a CNN report said North Korea had begun fuelling the rocket for an impending launch.

North Korea says it will send the satellite into orbit on a multi-stage rocket some time from Saturday to Wednesday.

The US, South Korea and Japan believe the reclusive country is using the launch to test long-range missile technology, and they warn Pyongyang would face sanctions under a United Nations Security Council resolution banning it from ballistic activity.

CNN television reported on its website – viewed from Seoul today – that Pyongyang had begun fuelling the rocket, citing an unidentified senior US military official.

South Korea’s defence ministry said it was aware of the report but declined to comment.

In one-to-one meetings in London yesterday ahead of the G20 summit, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak stressed the need for a “united response” among world leaders after Pyongyang carried out the launch.

“We should try to convince China and Russia to join in a strong response” such as taking the matter to the Security Council, Lee told Japanese prime minister Taro Aso, the presidential Blue House said.

Mr Aso said he would discuss the possibility with the US and Britain.

But Beijing and Moscow – veto-wielding permanent members of the security council – could object to an attempt to seek sanctions, citing legal uncertainty over the wording of the resolution because it makes “no mention of launches relating to peaceful outer space activities”, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report.

North Korea has refused to back down and even issued warnings of its own, telling the US it will shoot down any spy planes that intrude into its territory and threatening Japan that any effort to intervene in the launch would be considered an act of war.

“If the brigandish US imperialists dare to infiltrate spy planes into our airspace to interfere with our peaceful satellite launch preparations, our revolutionary armed forces will mercilessly shoot them down,” South Korea’s Unification Ministry quoted North Korean radio as saying.

It is unclear what capability the North Korea has to shoot down high-flying Boeing RC-135s, which can reach altitudes of nearly 10 miles.

Today, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo daily reported that North Korea had redeployed newer fighter jets along its east coast in a possible indication that the regime was serious about the threat.

The report, which had no other details, cited an unnamed government source. South Korea’s defence ministry said it could not confirm it.

The newspaper also said South Korea had decided to fully join a US-led international campaign aimed at stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction right after the North’s rocket launch – a move certain to anger Pyongyang.

North Korea condemned the campaign as an attempt to topple the regime and has recently warned that Seoul’s participation would be treated as “a declaration of a war”.

South Korea has only been an observer to the Proliferation Security Initiative.

In Washington, politicians are urging President Barack Obama to shoot down the rocket if it endangers the US or its allies.

US defence secretary Robert Gates said in a TV interview shown on Sunday that the US had no plans to intercept the North Korean rocket but might consider it if an “aberrant missile” were headed to Hawaii “or something like that”.

Meanwhile crisis control officials opened an emergency centre in northern Japan today.

Governor Sukeshiro Terata, in charge at the crisis control headquarters in Akita Prefecture, urged officials and residents to stay calm.

He said the possibility of a launch failure that would send debris or fragments falling towards Japan was “one in a million”.

“We believe a flying object from North Korea is unlikely to land in our territory. Yet, we must be prepared just in case,” Mr Terata said.

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