N. Korea rocket launch unlikely: US experts

No indication that activity at its nuclear site linked to preparations for test, they say

SEOUL • Recent satellite images suggest that speculation that North Korea will launch a satellite rocket on or before a key political anniversary next month is probably unfounded, US experts said yesterday.

And while analysis of separate images showed new activity at the North's nuclear test site, the same experts said there was no indication it was linked to preparations for an actual test.

There has been fevered speculation for months that the North might launch a long-range rocket to mark the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party on Oct 10.

Hints dropped by the head of the North's space agency have fuelled the conjecture, while comments by the chief of the national atomic commission have led to talk of a possible fourth nuclear test.

The US, South Korea and its allies have made it clear that any rocket launch will be deemed a test of ballistic missile technology in violation of UN resolutions.

South Korean President Park Geun Hye, who is expected to reference the North's missile and nuclear weapon programmes in an address to the UN General Assembly next week, warned Pyongyang of serious consequences if it pushed forward with either a rocket launch or nuclear test.

"Should the North go ahead with provocative actions that violate the UN Security Council resolutions, there will certainly be a price to be paid," Ms Park told Bloomberg in a written interview.

"The Korean government is making every diplomatic effort to prevent the North from further belligerence, by working closely together with the international community including the US," she said.

South Korea will stick to its "two- track approach of pursuing dialogue and applying pressure" and is ready to work with the international community to provide "a range of assistance" if Mr Kim Jong Un's regime decides to give up its nuclear programme, she said.

According to analysts at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, the latest satellite images of the North's Sohae Satellite Launching Station indicate that a space launch vehicle (SLV) blasting off the pad on or before Oct 10 is possible but "unlikely".

"There are no signs at the launch pad or the Sohae facility of preparations to launch an SLV," they said in a post on the institute's 38 North website.

North Korea successfully launched a three-stage, Unha-3 satellite rocket from the Sohae site on Dec 12, 2012. In that case, it announced its intentions on Dec 1, and notified neighbouring countries of the SLV's intended flight path. The launch triggered fresh sanctions and a surge in military tensions that culminated two months later in North Korea conducting its third nuclear test.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2015, with the headline 'N. Korea rocket launch unlikely: US experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe