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Uproar over N. Korea launch plan

Mar 23, 2012 - By Barbara Demick and Paul Richter

BEIJING -- Two weeks after agreeing to freeze its weapons programs in return for food aid, North Korea says it is preparing to launch a satellite in mid-April to mark the 100th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung's birth.

Although North Korea insisted its intentions are peaceful, the timing of the launch could scuttle the newly inked deal with Washington. The technology employed in shooting a satellite into orbit is essentially the same as a long-range missile test. Two previous tests, in 1998 and 2009, were also described by Pyongyang as satellite launches.

In Washington, the State Department has called the announcement of the launch a "highly provocative" move that would jeopardize plans to deliver food aid to starving North Koreans, even though the United States has insisted the assistance did not depend on the deal.

"Such a missile launch would pose a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea's recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

A launch "would call into question the credibility of all the commitments (North Korea) has made to us, including agreements ... on nutritional assistance," she said, adding that U.S. officials had specifically warned North Korean negotiators against such a move before the deal was signed.

The dispute also called into question a U.S.-North Korean agreement to cooperate in recovering the remains of American troops from the Korean War, officials said.

The food-aid deal, which was announced Feb. 29, called for North Korea to suspend its nuclear and long-range missile programs. It raised hopes that the new, youthful leader, Kim Jong Un, is keener to normalize relations with the United States than his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December.

North Korea watchers believe that the 180-degree turn could indicate a split within the leadership in Pyongyang. At a closed forum this month in New York, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told U.S. officials "the new generation wants peace and no longer wants to fight the United States," according to an attendee at the meeting who asked not to be quoted by name.

"It is very difficult to pinpoint where the North Koreans stand right now," said Kim Chul-woo, an analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "Kim Jong Un might want to improve relations with the United States, but he also needs to consolidate his position with the military."

Nuland also suggested the unexpected announcement could be a sign of divisions within the North Korean government. "This obviously raises a question about what is going on in Pyongyang," she said.

Even given a track record of broken promises, North Korea's apparent reversal is puzzling, said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.

"Why did they make a deal if two weeks later they're going to scuttle it, without even getting anything out of it?" Delury asked. "This doesn't make sense in the standard North Korean playbook."

Robert King, the U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights, had met with North Korean officials a week ago in Beijing to work out the details for 240,000 metric tons of food aid, and deliveries were supposed to start within weeks. "This is going to make it politically difficult for President (Barack) Obama to go ahead with the aid," said Delury.

Early Friday, U.S. envoy Glyn Davies called the other members of the five-nation group that have been trying to negotiating Pyongyang's disarmament -- Japan, China, Russia and South Korea -- and urged them to try to talk the North Koreans out of a launch.

The announcement out of Pyongyang, attributed to the Korean Committee for Space Technology, said that the satellite launch would take place between April 12 and 16 from Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province.

"A safe flight orbit has been chosen so that carrier rocket debris to be generated during the flight would not have any impact on neighboring countries," the announcement said.

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