North Korea has extended the window for its planned rocket launch by a week until Dec. 29, state media said Monday, due to a “technical deficiency" in the long-range rocket it says will carry a satellite into orbit.
The official Korean Central News Agency quoted an unidentified spokesman for the Korean Committee of Space Technology as saying that scientists had found “a technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module” of the three-stage Unha-3 rocket.
North Korea had announced earlier this month that it would launch the rocket sometime between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22 as part of a bid to put its Kwangmyongsong satellite into space, drawing widespread concern from nations who say the move could violate restrictions based on U.N. Security Council requirements.
No further details were provided about the reason for the delay, but the statement said that rocket technicians were “pushing forward” with final preparations for the launch.
The move would mark the second time North Korea has launched a rocket this year, following an unsuccessful attempt in April, which was reported to have exploded shortly after liftoff and to have broken up off of South Korea’s western coast.
North Korea also fired long-range missiles in March 2009, July 2006, and August 1998.
Pyongyang maintains that its rocket launches are part of a “peaceful” space program, but many countries seeking to end North Korea’s buildup of arms believe they are part of an effort to build a missile arsenal capable of targeting the U.S.
North Korea is under U.N. sanctions which ban the nation from trading missiles or nuclear technology, and the U.S., Japan, and South Korea have threatened further measures through the U.N. Security Council if the launch is not called off entirely.
The planned launch has also drawn concern from North Korea’s largest ally, China, and an appeal from another ally, Russia, to “urgently reconsider” the decision.
Pyongyang’s rocket launch plan was unveiled ahead of South Korean and Japanese elections this month, at the beginning of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term, and follows a once-in-a-decade leadership change in Beijing.
Speculation over delay
On Sunday, the North said it might delay the launch because of unspecified reasons, but according to the Associated Press, experts in Seoul and Tokyo said that technical problems may have forced scientists to postpone it because of the problems that can arise with a three-stage rocket.
Unusually cold weather in the North, where temperatures dropped to -13 C (8.6 F) on Monday, may have also stall the launch, they said.
Last week, snow covered the Sohae Satellite Launch Station, where North Korea is expected to launch the rocket and the site of the unsuccessful attempt in April.
The AP said commercial satellite imagery taken on Dec. 4 showed no fresh tracks on the road from the main assembly building to the launch pad, indicating that the snowfall may have stalled preparations.
But several nations have gone ahead with precautions against the launch, including Japan, which has mobilized its military to intercept any debris from the rocket’s flight path, and South Korea, which has deployed an Aegis-equipped destroyer to the Yellow Sea to monitor the situation.
The U.S. has also moved ships with anti-ballistic missile capabilities to the region.
North Korea has unveiled missiles designed to strike U.S. soil and has tested two atomic devices in recent years, but it has not proven that it has the capability of mounting a nuclear warhead atop a long-range missile.
But the AP quoted Chong Chol-Ho, a weapons of mass destruction expert at the private Sejong Institute near Seoul, as saying that a successful launch would mean that the North is capable of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the U.S. mainland within two to three years.
Experts have suggested that North Korea may have delayed the launch plans because Beijing sent Pyongyang a strong message calling for a cancellation or because the North believes the U.S., its longtime Korean War foe, would actively engage in dialogue.
Six-nation negotiations—which included the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, North Korea, and South Korea—to offer the North much-needed aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament have been stalled since early 2009.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.