South Korea warns rocket launch by North would be 'serious' provocation

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (centre) gives field guidance during a visit to the construction site of the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (centre) gives field guidance during a visit to the construction site of the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea warned North Korea on Tuesday against a possible long-range rocket launch, saying it would be deemed a ballistic missile test and a “serious” provocation violating United Nations resolutions.

The warning came after the head of North Korea’s space programme suggested that Pyongyang was considering a satellite launch to mark the 70th anniversary next month of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).

Such a move would almost certainly invite fresh international sanctions on the already isolated North and trigger a surge in military tensions on the divided Korean peninsula.

The North insists its rocket launches are intended to put peaceful satellites into orbit, while the United States and its allies see them as disguised ballistic missile tests.

“Any launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea is a serious act of provocation,” Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok told a regular press briefing.

“It is a military threat and a clear violation of the UN resolutions banning (North Korea) from any activities using ballistic missile technology,” Kim said.

There has been widespread speculation that the North might launch a satellite to mark the WPK anniversary on October 10.

The resulting spike in inter-Korean tensions would jeopardise an October 20-26 reunion being organised with South Korea of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War.

- No sign of imminent launch - 

Echoing recent analysis by US experts of images of the North’s main Sohae satellite launch site, Kim stressed that “no particular activities” had been observed so far to suggest a launch was imminent.

His warning was a response to comments Monday by the director of the North’s National Aerospace Development Administration that Pyongyang was in the “final phase” of developing a new satellite.

“The world will clearly see a series of satellites... soaring into the sky at the times and locations determined by the WPK central committee,” the director, whose name was not given, was quoted as saying by the official KCNA news agency.

Space development is a sovereign right that North Korea intends to exercise “no matter what others might say about it", he added.

North Korea is prohibited under UN Security Council resolutions from carrying out any launch involving ballistic missile technology, although repeated small-range missile tests into the sea have gone unpunished.

Its first, and last, successful satellite launch was of the Unha-3 rocket in December 2012 – a move that resulted in fresh sanctions and a surge in military tensions that culminated three months later in the North’s third nuclear test.

Analysts at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University believe the launchpad at Sohae is now capable of handling rockets up to 50 metres (165 feet) in length – almost 70 per cent longer than the Unha-3 rocket.

- US, Japan warnings - 

When asked about Monday’s statement from Pyongyang, a US State Department spokesman said any satellite launch by the North would be a “clear violation” of the Security Council resolutions.

The same warning came Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, who urged Pyongyang “to refrain from taking provocative action”.

South Korean analysts were divided as to whether the North would push ahead with an October launch, given the inevitable international fallout.

“These hints might just be aimed at testing the waters,” said Kim Yeon-Chul, a professor at Inje University.

“North Korea might see the threat of a satellite launch as a way to exert leverage, whether on Seoul, the US or its main ally China,” Kim said North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 and has an extremely active ballistic missile development programme, even if expert opinion is split on how much progress it has made.

The Unha-3 is seen as a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), although the North has yet to conduct a test showing it has mastered the re-entry technology required for an effective ICBM capability.

Developing a working ICBM would be seen as a game-changer, bringing the mainland United States into the range of a possible nuclear strike.