SEOUL • North Korea is preparing to launch a new, long-range rocket, possibly in October, having completed an upgrade at its main satellite launch base, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported yesterday.
Any such launch would almost certainly be viewed by the international community as a disguised ballistic missile test and result in the imposition of fresh sanctions.
Quoting an unnamed government source, Yonhap cited "credible intelligence" that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had ordered the launch of a satellite to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North's ruling Workers' Party on Oct 10.
"Our assessment is that the North will use the newly upgraded Tongchang-ri (missile) launch pad to launch a long-range missile larger than Unha-3," Yonhap quoted a South Korean government source as saying. Unha-3 refers to the long-range rocket fired by North Korea in 2012 from the base near its west coast.
"We think (the North) will carry out a provocation around the 70th anniversary," the source said.
The South Korean Defence Ministry declined to confirm or deny the Yonhap report. "As to the construction of North Korea's long-range missile launching facilities, we've been watching the North's moves very closely," a ministry spokesman said.
According to the Yonhap source, North Korea has completed work on an extended 67m gantry capable of handling a rocket twice the size of the 30m Unha-3 rocket.
The Unha-3 launch was widely condemned overseas as a ballistic missile test and triggered additional United Nations (UN) sanctions.
North Korea, which insisted the launch was purely scientific in nature, responded three months later by conducting its third nuclear test - the most powerful to date.
North Korea is banned under UN Security Council resolutions from carrying out any launch using ballistic missile technology, although repeated small-range missile tests have gone unpunished.
It is believed to be years away from the deployment of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
It is also working to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to mount on a delivery vehicle.
The upgrading of facilities at the Sohae launch centre has been closely monitored by satellite imagery analysts at the United States-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. In a recent report, the institute estimated that an Oct 10 launch would be "difficult although not impossible".
North Korea, meanwhile, has made its intentions very clear.
Visiting a newly built satellite command centre in May, Mr Kim had vowed to push ahead with further satellite launches despite the sanctions threat.
"Space development can never be abandoned, no matter who may oppose it," he said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS