North Korea has removed its long-range rocket from its launch pad to conduct repairs, South Korean media said Tuesday, a day after Pyongyang announced the planned window for the rocket’s launch had been extended due to technical problems.
According to analysis of recent satellite imagery, the North has taken the three stages of the Unha-3 rocket off the launch pad at the Sohae center in the country’s northwest and moved them to a nearby assembly line, Yonhap news agency quoted a South Korean military source as saying.
"It seems that North Korea has pulled down the rocket from the launch pad to fix technical problems," the anonymous source said.
The source said Pyongyang is expected to go ahead with a launch after repairs are completed.
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 orbit.
But on Monday Pyongyang’s state media said the window for the launch period had been extended by a week until Dec. 29 due to a “technical deficiency.”
The plans for the launch have drawn widespread concern from nations who say the move could violate restrictions based on U.N. Security Council requirements.
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.
Calls to avoid 'further escalation'
Experts have suggested that North Korea would have intentionally delayed the launch plans if it believed the U.S. would actively engage in dialogue or if Beijing had sent Pyongyang a strong message calling for a cancellation.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday that Beijing had noted the reports of the rocket’s removal from the launch pad and vowed to maintain close contact with Pyongyang and Washington on the launch.
“China has been in touch with relevant parties including the U.S. and North Korea,” he said at a press briefing on Tuesday.
“Our position on this issue is clear and consistent: we hope all parties concerned can take a long-term and calm approach in order to avoid further escalation of the situation and to do more for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and U.S. counterpart Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the launch in a phone conversation on Friday, according to Hong and U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland.
On Monday after Pyongyang’s announcement of the extended launch period, Nuland said Washington remains concerned that North Korea will go ahead with the launch after the repairs.
“Fundamentally, their plans are unchanged,” she told reporters at a press briefing.
"We remain concerned that this is just a delay and that [North Korea] still plans to launch a missile or a satellite or something that would be in violation of its international obligations," she said.
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.
'Valuable source of propaganda'
Plans for the Unha-3 launch follow an unsuccessful attempt in April, when a rocket was reported to have exploded shortly after liftoff and broken up off South Korea’s western coast.
The fresh launch attempt is timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong Il, who is believed to have succumbed to a heart attack in December last year, thrusting his son Kim Jong Un into power.
Moojin Yang, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea, said Pyongyang wants a successful rocket launch to bolster support inside North Korea for the younger Kim, who is believed to be in his 20s.
“North Korea’s rocket launch failure in April tarnished its image in front of international missile experts and journalists invited to observe the launch,” he told RFA’s Korean Service.
If the launch is successful this time, Pyongyang will use it “as a valuable source of propaganda” for its people, he said.
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.