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Video: North Korea prepares to launch rocket

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updated 4/8/2012 7:18:56 PM ET 2012-04-08T23:18:56

North Korean space officials have moved all three stages of a long-range rocket into position for a controversial launch, vowing Sunday to push ahead with their plan in defiance of international warnings against violating a ban on missile activity.

International news agencies, including The Associated Press and NBC News, were allowed a firsthand look at preparations under way at the coastal Sohae Satellite Station in northwestern North Korea.

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North Korea announced plans last month to launch an observation satellite using a three-stage rocket during mid-April celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. The U.S., Japan, Britain and other nations have urged North Korea to cancel the launch, warning that firing the long-range rocket would violate U.N. resolutions and North Korea's promise to refrain from engaging in nuclear and missile activity.

North Korea maintains that the launch is a scientific achievement intended to improve the nation's faltering economy by providing detailed surveys of the countryside.

"Our country has the right and also the obligation to develop satellites and launching vehicles," Jang Myong Jin, general manager of the launch facility, said during a tour, citing the U.N. space treaty. "No matter what others say, we are doing this for peaceful purposes."

Potential military threat
Experts say the Unha-3 rocket, slated for liftoff between April 12 and 16, could also test long-range missile technology that might be used to strike the U.S. and other targets.

North Korea has tested two atomic devices, but is not believed to have mastered the technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range missile.

On Sunday, reporters were taken by train past desolate fields and sleepy farming hamlets to North Korea's new launch pad in Tongchang-ri in North Phyongan province, about 35 miles (50 kilometers) south of the border town of Sinuiju along North Korea's west coast.

Image: Soldier at launch pad
Bobby Yip  /  Reuters
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 ("Milky Way 3") rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, northwest of Pyongyang, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities on Sunday.

All three stages of the 91-ton rocket, emblazoned with the North Korean flag and "Unha-3," were in position at the towering launch pad, and fueling will begin soon, Jang said. He said preparations were well on track for liftoff and that international space, aviation and maritime authorities had been advised of the plan. Jang did not, however, provide exact details on the timing of the fueling or the mounting of the satellite.

Engineers gave reporters a peek at the 220-pound (100-kilogram) Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite due to be mounted on the rocket, as well as a tour of the command center.

About two weeks before North Korea unveiled its rocket plan, Washington announced an agreement with the North to provide it with much-needed food aid in exchange for a freeze on nuclear activity, including a moratorium on long-range missile tests. Plans to send food aid, as well as a recently revived project to conduct joint searches for the remains of U.S. military personnel killed during the Korean War, have now been suspended.

Jang denied the launch was a cover for a missile test, saying the relatively diminutive rocket and fixed Sohae station would be "useless" for sending a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. If the rocket were to be used as a military ICBM, it would have to be in a hardened silo, not an above-ground launch pad, he said.

"During the recent senior-level North Korea-U.S. talks, our side made clear there's only a moratorium on long-range missile launches, not on satellite launches," he said. "The U.S. was well aware of this."

Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, said they are prepared to shoot down any parts of the rocket that threaten to fall in their territory — a move North Korea's Foreign Ministry warned would be considered a declaration of war.

Image: Satellite
David Guttenfelder  /  AP
A North Korean soldier tries to keep order as journalists gather around the satellite that North Korean officials say will be launched with the country's Unha-3 rocket, slated for liftoff between April 12-16, as it shown to the media on Sunday at Sohae Satellite Station in Tongchang-ri.

The launch is scheduled to take place three years after North Korea's last announced attempt to send a satellite into space, a liftoff condemned by the U.N. Security Council. North Korea walked away from nuclear disarmament negotiations in protest, and conducted an atomic test weeks later that drew tightened U.N. sanctions.

It is meant to show that North Korea has become a powerful, prosperous nation, celebrate the centenary of founder Kim Il Sung's birth, and usher in a new era under his grandson, Kim Jong Un, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University.

"North Korea needs to show some tangible achievements to its people to solidify Kim Jong Un's leadership," he said. "North Korea intends to provide its people with a sense of pride."

Power transfer
Kim Jong Un took power following the December death of his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il, and is expected to assume more top posts during high-profile political and parliamentary meetings later this week — a step analysts say will formally complete the country's second hereditary power transfer.

The satellite is designed to send back images and information that will be used for weather forecasts as well as surveys of North Korea's natural resources, Jang said. He said a western launch was chosen to avoid showering neighboring nations with debris.

He said two previous satellites also named Kwangmyongsong, or Bright Shining Star, were experimental, but the third will be operational.

However, Brian Weeden, a technical adviser at Secure World Foundation who is a former Air Force officer at the U.S. Space Command, questioned whether North Korea truly has the technology to successfully send a satellite into orbit.

"The end goal is to test and develop their ballistic missile program and show their people and the world that they are strong," Weeden said from Washington.

After the visit to the launch pad, NBC News space analyst James Oberg gave his assessment of the mission's rocket configuration. "The rocket they're using for this launch has not technically been weaponized," he said.

More about the North Korean rocket program:

Associated Press writers Foster Klug and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report. This report was also supplemented by msnbc.com.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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