North Korea fuels rocket for anniversary launch
PYONGYANG — North Korea on Wednesday began fuelling a long-range rocket ahead of a landmark political anniversary, defying US calls to cancel the launch and choose a "better future" for its impoverished people.
The launch of the rocket is scheduled to occur in a five-day window starting Thursday, coinciding with Sunday's 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea's founding leader Kim Il-Sung.
The rocket is ostensibly designed to place an observation satellite in orbit, but the United States and allies say it is in fact a ballistic missile test by the nuclear-armed North, in violation of a United Nations ban.
While commemorating the 100th anniversary, the launch and top-level meetings this week will also serve to cement the power of the founding leader's grandson Kim Jong-Un, who took over after his own father died in December.
North Korea on Wednesday was scheduled to hold only the fourth-ever special conference of its ruling Workers' Party to bolster the titular rule of Kim Jong-Un, as officials said that the rocket launch was proceeding apace.
"We are injecting fuel as we speak. It has started (and it) will be over in the near future," Paek Chang-Ho, director of North Korea's mission control centre just outside Pyongyang, told foreign journalists.
"The launch of the satellite this time will be successful because Comrade Kim Jong-Un is guiding us through the launch step by step, and gives us personal guidance," he said.
The same mission control was used when North Korea last said it placed a satellite in orbit, in 2009. Foreign experts disputed that a satellite was involved, and said it was a ballistic missile test.
That launch was followed by a nuclear test, and the West fears the same pattern is being repeated now as the communist state tries to perfect dual-use technology that can double for intercontinental missiles.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday said North Korea faced a clear choice.
"We are consulting closely in capitals and at the United Nations in New York and we will be pursuing appropriate action," she said at a news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, who echoed her remarks.
"If North Korea wants a peaceful, better future for their people, it should not conduct another launch that would be a direct threat to regional security," Clinton said.
Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of the US Pacific Command based in Hawaii, said in Tokyo Wednesday that North Korea over time has pursued "increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile defence technologies".
If the nuclear-armed nation can increase the potential ranges of its missiles, this "will be a concern for the alliance, a concern for the region as well as a concern for the United States", he said.
However, North Korea insists it has nothing to hide and has invited an unprecedented number of foreign journalists to cover this week's commemorations.
Four busloads of visitors were escorted to the two-storey mission control in a heavily guarded, wooded compound in Pyongyang's northern suburbs. Inside were 16 white-coated technicians, both men and women, hunched over computer screens.
A main screen in front of them showed what official minders said was a live image of the 30-metre (100-foot) rocket on its launchpad in the country's far northwest, shrouded at its top to protect the satellite payload.
Foreign space experts invited on the tour said the mission control appeared dated compared to modern facilities in the West or Russia. Paek said that all the computer hardware and software had been developed in North Korea.
The launch of the Unha-3 (Galaxy 3) rocket is the centrepiece of this weekend's mass anniversary festivities, and North Korea has rejected criticism that the launch's cost could feed its hungry people for a year.
Tens of thousands in the tightly regimented state have been sprucing up the capital Pyongyang for the commemoration as the government's propaganda machine rallies the people behind Kim Jong-Un, who is in his late 20s.
"The historic conference of the Korean Workers' Party that opens today will demonstrate thoroughly the party and people's iron will and unwavering faith in following the path of victory led by dear comrade Kim Jong-Un," party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in an editorial Wednesday.
The conference is expected to formally install Kim Jong-Un as the party secretary-general. And an annual session of North Korea's rubber-stamp parliament on Friday could elevate him to chairman of the all-powerful National Defence Commission.
So far Kim Jong-Un has been formally appointed to only one of the posts held by his late father Kim Jong-Il -- supreme commander of the 1.2-million-strong military, the world's fourth largest.
With the rocket launch imminent, North Korea also announced Wednesday the appointment of a new armed forces minister, Kim Jong-Gak, in what analysts said was a sign the new leader is installing close confidants to key posts.