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Clock is ticking as missile crisis fires up tensions

Weather and political factors may affect exact timing of rocket launch  PLAY AUDIO

Apr 04,2009
The South Korean Foreign Ministry has scheduled an emergency meeting for 8:30 a.m. this morning to be chaired by First Vice Foreign Minister Kwon Jong-rak as the possibility grows that North Korea might launch its rocket as early as today after almost completing the fueling process.

Satellite photos over the past week have shown a rocket on the launch pad at the North’s missile base in Musudan-ri in the northerly province of North Hamgyong.

Reports emerged Thursday that the North had begun fueling its long-range rocket, intelligence sources said yesterday.

North Korea has said it will launch what it calls a communications satellite for peaceful purposes between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. between April 4 and 8.

A South Korean government official, requesting anonymity, said yesterday the North was in the “final stages” of its preparations and the launch was “imminent.” If indeed the rocket has been fueled, the launch has to take place in the next few days - the fuel the North is using is typically corrosive.

Weather conditions might also influence the launch time. The Korea Meteorological Administration in South Korea forecast a slightly cloudy sky for Musudan-ri for today, with the wind blowing at between 6 to 10 meters (19.7 to 32.8 feet) per second. Similar conditions are expected for tomorrow, and the wind is expected to die down for Monday and Tuesday before picking up again on Wednesday.

Experts said cloudy conditions would make it difficult to track the rocket’s trajectory with radar, and static caused by cloud cover may affect the rocket’s electronic devices. Strong winds could also push the rocket off course.

And then there are the political factors that might come into play. On April 9, the North will hold a parliamentary session. The Supreme People’s Assembly held its 12th election on March 8.

Hong Hyun-ik, a senior researcher with the Sejong Institute, a private think tank in South Korea, said the North would want to give itself some time between the rocket launch and the parliamentary session so the launch could be built up as a propaganda coup. He predicted the rocket would be fired today or tomorrow.

South Korean government sources, though, said they were surprised when the North set an April launch date. One official, requesting anonymity, said the North may have wanted to take the United States by surprise, before the new U.S. President Barack Obama had refined his North Korean policy.

The Obama administration has previously suggested direct talks with the North, and the North even offered to send Kim Gye-gwan, its top nuclear negotiator, to Washington for Obama’s inauguration. But just when the two sides seemed ready to talk, the North began preparations for the missile launch in late January.

The launch also comes as the post of assistant secretary at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the State Department still remains empty in the Obama administration.

Frank Jannuzi, Obama’s advisor on the Korean Peninsula during his campaign, is a staff member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, but doesn’t hold a department job.

According to a South Korean government official, “The North wanted to show the United States its missile capabilities and to influence new policy makers in the Obama administration.”

South Korea, Japan and the United States have claimed that the North’s launch is a cover for a ballistic missile test. Rockets that launch satellites into orbit and those that deliver warheads use the same technology. They have also argued that the launch will be a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, which bans the North from ballistic missile-related activities.


By Yoo Jee-ho, Yeh Young-june [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]


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