An earlier North Korean rocket on its launch pad in April. Photo: Reuters
Update: North Korea extended the time frame of this month’s rocket launch by one week due to technical difficulties as the totalitarian state faced cold weather and international protests over its plans.
Kim Jong Un’s regime decided to extend the launch period that began today to December 29 from December 22 after scientists ‘‘found technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module,’’ the official Korean Central News Agency said, citing an unidentified space administration spokesman. The same agency Sunday said the launch might be delayed.
A botched test would be an embarrassment for the North after an April launch failed shortly after liftoff and scuttled a US food aid deal. The US is deploying ships capable of intercepting the rocket, while Japan has readied its military and China, the North’s biggest ally, has said it should keep in mind regional stability.
South Korea's Unification Ministry urged the North to scrap the launch plan, saying it poses a serious threat to security in northeast Asia. The ministry said December 7 that Kim's regime is seeking to solidify its status as a nuclear state, and the rocket launch is aimed at developing the means to deliver nuclear warheads.
"Another failure would deal a heavy blow to Kim's regime," said Koh Yu Hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "He would lose more than gain, so his best tactic is to keep the threat open and maximise its bargaining power."
Japan has yet to confirm any North Korean postponement of its launch plans, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Sunday in an appearance on Fuji Television. Last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China hopes its ally will "act prudently" and "bear in mind peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."
North Korea expects the rocket's fuselage to fall about 140 kilometreswest of South Korea and its second stage to drop into waters about 136 kilometres east of the Philippines, South Korea's Transportation Ministry said on December 7, citing launch plans the North submitted to the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto on December 7 ordered his military to intercept and destroy any part of the rocket that threatened the country, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said, adding that a threat wasn't expected.
North Korea's plans coincide with South Korea's December 19 presidential election. Ruling party candidate Park Geun Hye and opposition nominee Moon Jae In are calling for re-engagement after five years of deteriorating ties marked by atomic bomb and missile tests and two clashes in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans.
"The issues in terms of the presidential campaign really are domestic," professor Delury said. "They are South Korean issues, there are economic issues and there's a lot of discussion of politics of South Korea and political reform."
Kim has shown no willingness to heed international calls to halt nuclear weapons development.
North Korea has invested about $US480 million ($457 million) to ready its rocket launch, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan told lawmakers last week. South Korea estimates the launch site to have cost $400 million, a further $50 million for parts manufacturing operations near Pyongyang, and $30 million for the satellite itself, he said.
North Korea's military arsenal includes Scud, Rodong and Musudan missiles. The Musudan has a range of more than 3,000 kilometres and can carry a 650-kilogram warhead, according to South Korea's defense ministry.