North has prepared a backup missile: sources

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North has prepared a backup missile: sources

North Korea has prepared two rockets in the event that the long-range ballistic missile launch it has planned initially fails, government sources monitoring the situation said on Thursday.

Pyongyang alerted a number of international organizations, including the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union, on Tuesday of its plans to conduct what it called the launch of an Earth observation satellite between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25 - a notification that was interpreted as a pretense for a long-range ballistic missile test.

“Since last year, North Korea has carried rocket components from Pyongyang and Nampo to its Tongchang-ri launch site in North Pyongan Province,” said a government official who has tracked movement at the site. “The analysis of activities shows that it has two rockets.”

The official said North Korea transferred bulky components by train and small parts by truck, adding that the two rockets had been built separately and at different facilities at the launch site.

“One rocket has finished assembly and is under final testing at a facility 150 meters [490 feet] away from the launch site,” the official added. “The other is suspected to be a reserve in a condition just before final assembly at another facility.”

The beleaguered state has faced increased scrutiny from the international community since it notified various organizations this week of its intentions.

Pyongyang was specific in its announcement, saying that the launch would occur sometime between 7 a.m. and noon local time between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25.

The alert came less than a month after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, which Pyongyang claimed was the successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb. The United Nations Security Council is currently drafting a resolution in response that will provide a basis for stricter punitive measures.

A military official who asked not to be named surmised that North Korea was preparing a reserve rocket in case faults in the main rocket are detected or to reduce the time preparing for a relaunch in the event the first launch fails.

North Korea conducted a failed missile test in 2012, just two days before the 100th birthday on April 15 of North Korea’s late founder, Kim Il Sung.

Later that year, five days before the anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death on Dec. 17, the North fired a three-stage rocket, the Unha-3, and claimed that it had successfully put what it called a satellite into orbit.

The United States confirmed that an object was launched into space.

“An additional rocket costs a lot,” said Lee Chun-geun, a senior analyst at the Science and Technology Policy Institute and an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program. “It’s typical to build two rockets at a time, and it seems North Korea has adopted that system.”

Such a system, Lee explained, makes it easy to replace components in the final process of assembly, where parts can be damaged or certain components found to be faulty.

Unlike its previous tests, North Korea has put a cover on its missile launcher, making the situation inside difficult to detect.

Considering the North’s pattern in its previous launches, some analysts have speculated that the rocket has been mostly completed except for the last step, fuel injection. Others believe the missile is already installed.

In 2012, North Korea launched a long-range missile eight days after it reported the situation to the UN and seven days after it completed assembly.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO [kim.sohee0905@joongang.co.kr]

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