North cuts corners to proceed with launch

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North cuts corners to proceed with launch

North Korea is pushing ahead with a plan to launch a rocket from its northwestern region this month even without completing the missile launch site there, a Seoul official told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.

“Through recently disclosed satellite photos of North Korea’s missile launch site in Tongchang-ri, Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, we have confirmed that a tower crane has been set up at the launch pad,” a high-ranking South Korean government official said.

“North Korea initially planned to set up gantry scaffold for the assembly of rockets in Tongchang-ri, but its construction has been delayed due in part to budget shortage.

“It appears to be using the tower crane to assemble rockets at the launch tower as a stop-gap measure.”

In a typical launch process for three-stage rockets, the rockets are assembled horizontally on land and then erected vertically, or they are assembled on the gantry scaffold and then moved to the launch pad.

The North, however, appears to be moving the first-stage rocket to the launch pad then mounting the second-stage and third-stage rockets one by one onto the first rocket, assembling all three directly at the launch pad, the official said.

That explains why the North moved the rockets from Pyongyang to the launch site on or around March 23, a week earlier than expected, the official said.

In a book it published in 1999 featuring what it thought to be common knowledge about satellites, the North drew a concept graphic of a rocket launch site including gantry scaffold.

The official said the construction of the Tongchang-ri missile base started in 2000 but was put on hold due to budget problems.

“The railroad connecting the launch base with Pyongyang was only completed at the end of last year,” the official said. “Without a gantry scaffold, which is an indispensable facility, the North seems to be pushing ahead with the launch.”

The official said there is a possibility that some other necessary facilities such as injection facilities of fuel or oxidizing agents have not been completed at the North’s Tongchang-ri base.

Pyongyang made the announcement that it would launch the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite into orbit using an Unha-3 long-range missile between April 12 and April 16, only two weeks after the Feb. 29 deal with the U.S., under which it made some concessions, including suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests, in return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid.

Last Wednesday, Peter Lavoy, an acting U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said the U.S. has suspended the food aid plan, saying the rocket launch plan reflects the North’s lack of desire to follow up on its commitments.

North Korea responded on Saturday, with a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson saying that the U.S. suspending the food assistance plan is an “overreaction” to what the North claims is a peaceful satellite. The North criticized the U.S. for not living up to its claim that it will not connect politics to humanitarian issues.

The missile launch plan is largely seen as a cover for a long-range missile test. South Korea’s Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik said in an interview with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun Saturday that the South will take “necessary measures” if the North pushes ahead with the missile launch, without elaborating on what those measures would be.

The foreign ministers of South Korea, China and Japan will have a trilateral meeting in Ningbo, China, for two days beginning Saturday and will likely discuss the North Korean missile launch issue, among other things.


By Jeong Yong-soo, Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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