SEOUL (AFP) — North Korea came under growing international pressure Wednesday to scrap what it calls a planned satellite launch that is widely seen abroad as a pretext to test its longest-range missile.
US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso urged the communist state to avoid provocative acts, according to a Japanese official present at their Washington summit Tuesday.
Earlier that day, the North announced that preparations to launch what it terms an experimental communications satellite were making "brisk headway" at the Musudan-ri site in the northeast.
North Korea's official media reported Wednesday that reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il had visited several venues -- including his mother's birthplace -- in the same province.
Seoul's Unification Ministry could not say whether the extensive trip was related to the launch or just part of his regular public activities.
South Korea and the United States say any test-firing, whether a purported satellite launch or a missile test, would be provocative since the technology is dual-use, and would breach UN resolutions passed after a 2006 test.
The Taepodong-2 being readied at Musudan-ri could in theory reach Alaska. The North tested an atomic device in 2006, but it remains unclear whether it can manufacture a nuclear warhead.
The US State Department urged the North to halt "intimidation and threats," pointing out that "some of the building blocks for developing a space-launched vehicle and for producing long-range missiles are similar."
France made the same point.
"Satellite-launching technology is the same as ballistic missile technology, and a North Korean satellite launch would help develop ballistic capability," its foreign ministry said in a statement.
A senior South Korean official said Wednesday the world would not overlook any rocket launch, whatever its stated purpose.
"North Korea's extreme behaviour such as a missile launch is seen as brinkmanship to grab attention from the international community and the United States," said Park Hyung-Joon, senior presidential assistant for public affairs.
"Whether North Korea fires a missile or a satellite, such an act will not be welcomed by the international community. It will not be condoned by the international community," Park told KBS radio.
Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan, speaking in Beijing after talks with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, said China may urge its ally not to fire the rocket.
Yang "told me he has watched attentively media reports on North Korea's plan to launch a satellite," Yu was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying.
"He said that he expects each side to take actions that contribute to the stabilisation of Northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula."
The North did not say when the launch would happen but analysts say it may take place around the time of parliamentary elections on March 8.
Pyongyang sent regional tensions soaring when a shorter-range Taepodong-1 missile overflew Japan's main island in 1998, in what was described then as an attempt to launch a satellite.
The Taepodong-2 was first tested in 2006 but failed after 40 seconds.
The North is also stepping up threats against South Korea. It is angry at conservative leader Lee Myung-Bak, who scrapped his predecessors' policy of engagement with Pyongyang and virtually unconditional aid.
Fears of a border clash have grown since the North in late January cancelled all peace accords with the South, including one recognising their Yellow Sea border as an interim frontier.
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