North Korea told two U.N. agencies it plans to launch a communications satellite sometime between April 4 and 8. The unprecedented disclosure is seen as trying to fend off international condemnation expected after what many believe will be a test of long-range missile technology.
Pyongyang's notification to the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization underscores the communist regime is intent on pushing ahead the launch in an attempt to gain greater leverage in negotiations with the United States, analysts say.
The U.S. and other governments have warned that any rocket launch — whether missile test or satellite — would violate a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution banning North Korea from ballistic missile activity.
The London-based IMO and Montreal-based ICAO said Thursday that North Korea informed them by letter of the launch details the day before. It is the first time the regime has offered a safety warning ahead of a missile or a satellite launch, according to the South Korean government.
"They want to do the launch openly while minimizing what the international community may find fault with," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. "The launch will earn North Korea a key political asset that would enlarge its negotiating leverage."
It is an international norm for countries planning a space launch or a missile test to notify maritime or aviation authorities of their plans so aircraft and ships can be warned to stay away from the affected regions.
But North Korea never did that ahead of its purported satellite launch in 1998 over Japan and a failed 2006 test-flight of a long-range missile, drawing strong international condemnations.
Few buy Pyongyang's claim that it needs a communications satellite at a time when it is one of the country's top national goals to address what it euphemistically calls the "problem of eating" — chronic food shortages that the country has grappled with since the mid-1990s.
Use of mobile phones, the Internet and international calls are tightly controlled in the totalitarian North.
"They might put a transistor on the rocket" and claim it was a satellite launch, said Hong Hyun-ik, a North Korea expert at the security think tank Sejong Institute, who is skeptical of the North's intentions.
Officials and experts have said even if a satellite is launched, the North's ultimate goal is to test and demonstrate its missile capabilities.
U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said Tuesday the North may be planning a space launch, but said the technology is no different from that of a long-range missile and its success would mean the communist nation is capable of striking the mainland U.S.
"If a three-stage space launch vehicle works, then that could reach not only Alaska and Hawaii but part of what the Hawaiians call the mainland and what the Alaskans call the lower forty-eight," he said before a Senate panel.
South Korea, Japan and the United States have warned the North against any rocket launch.