North Korea appears to be ramping up preparations for its internationally-condemned mid-April rocket launch, new satellite images have revealed.
The images, released by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, show a mobile radar trailer â€” which engineers use to gather real-time information about the rocketâ€™s engines and guidance systems â€” and rows of seemingly empty fuel and oxidiser tanks.
The instituteâ€™s North Korean analysts 38 North have scrutinized satellite imagery taken last week of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in the North Pyongan province. They appear to show that North Korea has â€œundertaken more extensive preparations than previously understood.â€
It is no secret that North Korea plans to launch the Unha-3 rocket carrying the Kwangmyongsong-3 (Bright Star 3) satellite some time between 12 and 16 April to coincide with the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the country. North Korea has said that the 100-kilogram satellite will orbit the Earth at an altitude of 500 kilometers for two years to study the countryâ€™s crops and natural resources.
However, Washington says that North Korea uses these sorts of launches to test missile systems for nuclear weapons that could target the United States. North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests, but analysts do not think that it has the technology needed to shrink a nuclear weapon and mount it onto a missile.
If North Korea was to launch a rocket, it would end an agreement from February 29 in which the United States said it would ship food aid to impoverished North Koreans in exchange for a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests.
This would be the fourth long-range rocket launch since 1998. The most recent launch â€” the Unha-3 in April 2009 â€” was condemned by the UN and meant that North Korea pulled out of six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. This led to tensions between North and South Korea, with at least 50 South Koreans killed in attacks that they blamed on the North.
Japanâ€™s Defence Minister Naoki Tanaka has already said that it will shoot down a North Korean rocket if any falling debris looked as though it would threaten Japanâ€™s territory
South Korea has made similar comments about shooting down the North Korean rocket if it passes over its territory, with defence ministry spokesman Yoon Won-shick calling the launch â€œa very reckless, provocative actâ€ that undermines peace on the Korean peninsula.
Based on previous rocket launch timelines, it is likely that Unha-3 will be ready to launch on April 12.