SEOUL, Feb 24 – North Korea is preparing to launch a satellite in "a great stride forward" for the communist nation, state media said Tuesday after weeks of foreign intelligence warnings of a long-range missile test.
The national space committee said that preparations are "now making brisk headway" for the launch of a Unha-2 rocket to put experimental communications satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 into orbit.
It did not say when the launch would be made.
Nevertheless, it was the North’s first official announcement that it would launch a satellite, despite warnings from the United States and allies not to do so.
Pyongyang has previously tested a missile under the guise of launching a satellite, and analysts have said recent comments from the North indicated it was on the verge of another attention-grabbing test.
The committee said the North had successfully launched its first satellite in August 1998 and that a second launch would be another milestone.
"When this satellite launch proves successful, the nation’s space science and technology will make another giant stride forward in building an economic power," a committee spokesman said in a statement in English carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
The North is under mounting international pressure to scrap apparent plans to launch its longest-range Taepodong-2 missile, which in theory could target Alaska.
Local media in South Korea has reported that the North has moved equipment for a launch to the Musudan-ri base on its northeast coast.
Pyongyang first tested the Taepodong-2 in 2006 but it blew up after just 40 seconds.
In Tuesday’s statement, the committee spokesman said the "peaceful" use of space had become a global trend.
North Korea envisages launching "practical satellites for communications, prospecting of natural resources and weather forecast" essential for economic development "in a few years to come," he added.
Reacting to the news, a Japanese foreign ministry official said Tokyo was ready for any possible emergency and was "analysing and examining a variety of information."
North Korea sent regional tensions soaring when a missile over flew Japan’s main island in 1998 — described by Pyongyang as a bid to launch a satellite.
During her visit to Seoul last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the North to stop provocation, saying a missile test would breach a UN resolution and urging it to abide by a six-nation nuclear disarmament pact.
South Korea has described the North’s nuclear and missile development as a serious threat to the world.
The South’s Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan warned that a rocket launch of any kind would still violate a UN Security Council resolution that was adopted after the North’s last missile test in 2006.
Sanctions would certainly follow, he said.
The communist state tested an atomic weapon in 2006 for the first time but experts are unsure whether it yet has the technology to fit a nuclear warhead to its missiles.
North Korea has staked out a tough stance in the nuclear disarmament talks and analysts see any missile launch as an attempt to strengthen its bargaining hand with the United States.
It has shut down its Yongbyon plutonium-producing complex in exchange for energy aid as part of a landmark 2007 pact agreed with its talks partners — China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
But negotiations on the next stage — full denuclearisation in return for diplomatic ties with Washington and a formal peace treaty — have been stalled by disputes over how to verify its nuclear activities.