NORTH Korea is preparing a controversial rocket for launch as early as today, officials said, a plan widely seen as a disguised long-range missile test.
US President Barack Obama said the international community would take steps if North Korea went ahead with the launch to show Pyongyang it could not act with impunity.
“Should North Korea decide to take this action, we will work with all interested partners in the international community to take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that they cannot threaten the safety and stability of other countries with impunity,” Obama told a joint news conference after talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Strasbourg.
North Korea has said it will send a satellite into space between today and next Wednesday, and insists it has the right to do so as a part of a peaceful space programme.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said it was now almost certain the North would fire the missile despite global protests, if weather allowed the launch to take place.
Analysts said the launch helps North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shore up support after a suspected stroke in August raised questions over his grip on power, and bolsters his hand in using military threats to wrangle concessions from global powers.
South Korea and Japan say the launch is a disguised test of the long-range Taepodong-2 missile, which is designed to carry a warhead capable of reaching US territory but which blew apart about 40 seconds after launch during its only test flight in July 2006.
The US, South Korea, and Japan are pushing for United Nations punishment for the launch they say violates UN resolutions banning further ballistic missiles since the previous Taepodong-2 test and the country’s nuclear test in October 2006.
“We favour sending out a very strong and stern message to the North Koreans that the international community does not condone nor will it accept North Korea engaging in such actions,” South Korea’s Lee told a small group of reporters in London where he had attended the G20 summit.
Several UN Security Council diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity said that no one was considering imposing new sanctions for the launch but the starting point could be discussing a resolution for the tougher enforcement of earlier sanctions.
Both Russia and China, the latter the nearest the reclusive North has to a major ally, have made clear they would block new sanctions by the Council, where they have veto power.
Lee said the launch would harm Pyongyang in talks with regional powers over its nuclear weapons programme.
“While in the short term it might give them an upper hand in the negotiations, in the long term the trust given them by the international community will only lessen and this will not be in their benefit,” he said.
South Korea, along with China, Japan, Russia and the United States, has been trying for years to persuade the impoverished North to give up its efforts to build a nuclear arsenal in return for massive aid.
Financial markets in South Korea, accustomed to the North’s military taunts over the years, have shrugged off the impending launch.
The last test led to a temporary fall in the Japanese yen, a drop in Seoul shares and a small increase in gold prices.
Some analysts have suggested a successful launch could give North Korea’s Kim the confidence in the face of possible opposition from his powerful military to name one of his sons as a successor. Kim was himself designated by his father as heir.
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