North Korea Fueling Rocket for Impending Launch
North Korea says it will send a communications satellite into orbit on a multistage rocket sometime from Saturday to Wednesday. The U.S., South Korea and Japan think the reclusive country is using the launch to test long-range missile technology; they've warned the move would violate a Security Council resolution banning the North from ballistic activity.
Regional powers have also begun to deploy ships to monitor the launch, and Japan is preparing to intercept any debris that might fall if the launch goes awry -- moves that have prompted several threats of retaliation from Pyongyang, including one Thursday.
CNN television said on its Web site that Pyongyang has started to fuel the rocket. The report, citing an unidentified senior U.S. military official, said the move indicates final preparations for the launch. Experts say the missile can be fired about three to four days after fueling begins.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said the U.S. and Japanese governments have not confirmed that fueling has begun. South Korea's Defense Ministry declined to comment on the report.
Obama denounced the planned launch as "a provocative act" and a breach of the U.N. resolution while speaking with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in London on Wednesday, according to the White House Web site.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the North to reconsider the launch, saying: "There will obviously be consequences if they do proceed with this."
The North countered with its own warnings against any efforts to intercept the rocket, take the issue to the Security Council or even monitor the launch. It says its armed forces are at a high level of combat-readiness.
The North has said debris from the rocket could fall off Japan's northern coast, so Tokyo has deployed battleships with anti-missile systems to the area and set up Patriot missile interceptors. It says it has no intention of trying to shoot down the rocket itself.
"If Japan imprudently carries out an act of intercepting our peaceful satellite, our people's army will hand a thunderbolt of fire to not only interceptor means already deployed, but also key targets," said a report Thursday by the North's official Korean Central News Agency that quoted the general staff of its military.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted unidentified officials as saying the North had moved a squadron of MiG-23 figher jets to a base near the launch site in what appeared to be a response to Japan's deployment. Seoul's Defense Ministry declined to confirm the reports.
KCNA also made a veiled threat against the U.S. In an apparent reference to American warships that have reportedly set sail to monitor the launch, the Korean-language version of the report said: "The United States should immediately withdraw armed forces deployed if it does not want to receive damage."
An English version said the U.S. forces could be hit in a retaliatory strike against Japan.
On Wednesday, the North threatened to shoot down any spy planes that intrude into its airspace.
The rocket issue is expected to be a key topic at Obama's talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Thursday. Lee has sought to drum up support from world leaders in London for punishing its neighbor if the launch goes forward.
In Washington, U.S. lawmakers are urging Obama to shoot down the rocket if it endangers the United States or its allies. But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a TV interview aired Sunday that the U.S. had no plans to intercept the rocket though it might consider it if an "aberrant missile" were headed to Hawaii "or something like that."
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo contributed to this report.