Pyongyang: North Korea announced plans on Friday to launch a long-range rocket mounted with a satellite next month, a provocative move just weeks after it agreed to nuclear concessions including a moratorium on long-range missile tests.
North Korea argues that such launches are part of a peaceful space program that is exempt from any disarmament agreements, but the US, South Korea and other critics condemn them as disguised tests of the North`s military missile technology in violation of a UN ban.
The launch is to take place exactly three years after similar launch in April 2009 drew widespread censure.
Liftoff will take place between April 12 and 16 from a launch pad in North Phyongan province, a spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology said in a statement carried by state media. The North said the launch would be a test of satellite technology.
The plan comes as North Korea prepares to celebrate the April 15 centenary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung. Kim`s grandson, Kim Jong Un, has led the nation of 24 million since his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December.
North Korea agreed last month to suspend uranium enrichment, place a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and to allow back U.N. weapons inspectors in exchange for much-needed food aid. Uranium enrichment is one way to make atomic bombs. In the past North Korea has also weaponised plutonium for nuclear devices.
North Korea called the April 2009 launch a bid to send a communications satellite into space, but it was widely viewed in the West as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from engaging in nuclear and ballistic missile activity.
Shortly after the 2009 launch, Pyongyang declared that it would abandon six-nation negotiations on offering the North aid and concessions in exchange for nuclear disarmament. And weeks later, North Korea tested a nuclear device, the second in three years — earning the regime tightened UN sanctions.
North Korea is proud of its nuclear and missile programs, which it claims are necessary to protect itself against the United States, which stations more than 28,000 troops in South Korea and has thousands more troops as well as nuclear-powered warships in Asia-Pacific region.
North Korea and the United States fought on opposite sides of the three-year Korean War, which ended in a truce in 1953. They have never signed a peace treaty.
North Korea is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for four to eight "primitive" atomic bombs, according to scientist Siegfried Hecker of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
Pyongyang also announced in 2009 that it would begin enriching uranium, and revealed the facility to Hecker and North Korea expert Robert Carlin during a November 2010 visit to the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
The North Korean space committee spokesman said a Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite designed to orbit the earth will be mounted on an Unha-3 rocket from the Sohae station in Cholsan County. He called it a "working" satellite that was an improvement over two previous "experimental" satellites.
The spokesman said North Korea would abide by international regulations governing the launch of satellites for "peaceful" scientific purposes and that an orbit was chosen to avoid showering debris on neighbouring nations.
North Korea provided similar notice in 2009, but launched the rocket despite warnings from world leaders that it would set the nation on a path of isolation.
In 2009, North Korea said an experimental communications satellite mounted on a three-stage Unha-2 rocket was sent into space playing "Song of Gen. Kim Il Sung" and "Song of Gen. Kim Jong Il."
The US North American Aerospace Defense Command and South Korea`s Defence Ministry said no satellite made it into orbit.
In Seoul, the Unification Ministry said it had no comment Friday. South Korea is due to host the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in two weeks, and North Korea`s nuclear program was expected to be discussed on the sidelines of the gathering of world leaders.