SEOUL—North Korea is apparently preparing to launch what it calls a rocket to send a satellite into space, amid growing fears it will launch a missile instead.
The South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted a government source as saying: "It appears that [the North] has begun assembling the rocket on the ground."
The government source said the isolated Stalinist North could finish preparations for the launch as early as the next week or two.
But the situation on the Korean Peninsula and Pyongyang's political schedule meant the launch was most likely in late March or early April, Yonhap reported.
The head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Timothy Keating, meanwhile told ABC news this week that the U.S. military is prepared to shoot down any North Korean ballistic missile if the White House orders it.
Charles P. Vick, a technical analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, said possible launch dates include March 8, when the Supreme People’s Assembly meets to re-elect Kim Jong Il, and April 15, birthday of North Korea’s late founder Kim Il Sung. April 5, Army Day, is also possible, he said.
“They’re duplicating what they tried to do back in 2006,” Vick said.
“Actually, this launch was very predictable. If you understand the North Korean five-year plan, you should have known that in 2005 this would be part of the plan. You would also realize that they had totally redesigned the launch vehicle.”
North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in 2006 but whether it can manufacture a nuclear warhead is unclear. It also test-launched a Taepodong-1 missile in 1998 and fired a longer-range Taepodong-2 in 2006.
Taepodong-1, which Pyongyang claims put its first satellite into orbit, overflew Japan and fell into the Pacific, sparking international condemnation. The Taepodong-2 failed after 40 seconds but resulted in UN sanctions.
North Korea expert Andrei Lankov earlier this month said a missile launch was "very likely" in the near future, as leaders in Pyongyang sought to grab the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama.
"I think that this is very likely—especially a missile launch, but maybe a [naval] provocation as well," Lankov said in an interview. "This is meant to ask for attention in Washington."
Stephen Bosworth, the new special envoy to the North for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will visit Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and Moscow next week.
Lankov said any attempt to ignore North Korea would result in further provocation, amid concerns among U.S. officials that the North's missiles might have the potential to hit U.S. territory.
"Now, they just want to make sure that Obama will not forget about them in spite of the economic crisis and the Middle East and Afghanistan—that somewhere in a part of his brain there will be ringing, 'North Korea, North Korea, North Korea,'" Lankov said.
"And to reinforce this activity of presidential neurons, they will launch missiles and, if necessary, conduct half a dozen nuclear tests. Why not?"
Pyongyang officials have said the country is determined to go ahead with what they call a peaceful satellite launch but has given no date.
They have also warned South Korea against telling Pyongyang what to do.
In a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea accused South Korea of trumpeting about sanctions against its satellite launch.
"If the puppet warmongers infringe upon our inviolable dignity even a bit ... we will not only punish the provokers but reduce their stronghold to debris," the statement said.
Kim Myong Gil, a Pyongyang envoy to the United Nations, told South Korean reporters that launching a satellite was part of a sovereign right which was universal and non-negotiable.
But U.S. and South Korean officials fear the launch is a pretext to test-launch a Taepodong-2 missile which could theoretically reach Alaska, saying that a rocket launch for any purpose would violate a U.N. resolution passed after the last missile test.
Meanwhile, a joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise fiercely opposed by North Korea is scheduled for March 9-20 and a U.S.-South Korea summit is likely in early April on the sidelines of the April 2 G-20 meeting.
Original reporting by RFA's Korean service in Seoul and Joshua Lipes in Washington. Korean service director: Francis Huh. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited and produced by Sarah Jackson-Han.