SEOUL • South Korea and Japan yesterday echoed US warnings that North Korea would pay a heavy price if it pushes ahead with a planned rocket launch just weeks after conducting its fourth nuclear test.
Urging Pyongyang to drop its plans for a launch as early as next week, the government in Seoul said that the move would be a serious breach of United Nations resolutions and a "direct challenge" to the international community.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned what he called a "serious provocation", while his defence minister issued an order to "destroy" the rocket with surface-to-air missiles if it threatened to fall on Japanese territory.
China, the North's main diplomatic ally and provider of trade and aid, yesterday expressed "serious concerns" over North Korea's plans.
"We believe that the DPRK has the right to the peaceful use of space but, at the moment, its relevant right should be subject to the restrictions of the UN Security Council resolutions," said foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang at a regular briefing, using the North's official name.
The warnings came a day after North Korea announced a Feb 8-25 window for the launch, ostensibly aimed at putting an Earth observation satellite into orbit.
UN resolutions forbid the North from any use of ballistic missile technology, and Tuesday's announcement saw Pyongyang doubling down against an international community already struggling to come up with a united response to last month's nuclear test.
"It's a classic move," said associate professor John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul.
"While waiting for a full response for the nuclear test, you might as well sneak in a rocket launch. The North tends to do these things in pairs," he said.
The United States, which has been spearheading a diplomatic drive for harsher, more effective sanctions on Pyongyang, was quick to condemn the launch plan.
Mr Daniel Russel, the assistant US Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific affairs, slammed what he called "yet another egregious violation" of UN resolutions.
"This argues even more strongly for action by the UN Security Council and the international community to impose... tough additional sanctions," he said.
In formal notifications sent to three UN agencies, including the International Maritime Organisation, North Korea said the launch would take place in the morning with a daily window of 7am to midday Pyongyang time. The dates suggest a launch around the time of the birthday on Feb 16 of late leader Kim Jong Il, father of current leader Kim Jong Un.
The South Korean government statement urged Pyongyang to call off the launch immediately or pay a "heavy price" for threatening regional peace and stability.
UN sanctions were tightened after North Korea successfully placed a satellite in orbit on a three-stage Unha-3 rocket in December 2012.
A fresh launch poses a dilemma for the international community, which is already divided on how to punish the North for its nuclear test.