US satellite data suggests North Korea may have already begun fueling a rocket it plans to launch this month in the face of international opposition, a Japanese newspaper reported on Friday, citing a US defence official.
Pyongyang has announced it will launch a satellite-bearing rocket sometime between February 8-25, which is around the time of the birthday on February 16 of late leader Kim Jong-Il, father of current supremo Kim Jong-Un.
The North insists its space programme is purely scientific in nature, but the US and allies, including South Korea, say its rocket launches are aimed at developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the US mainland.
North Korea “will finish preparations for the launch as soon as the next several days”, the unidentified US Defence Department official told the Asahi Shimbun.
Since today, satellite images have shown increased movement of people and equipment around the launch pad and a fuel storehouse at North Korea’s Sohae satellite launch complex in the country’s northwest, the official said, according to the Washington-datelined report.
The United States judged that fueling appears to have started as it has been monitoring Pyongyang’s movements via military intelligence satellites which can analyse objects as small as 30 centimeters, the official was quoted as saying.
Given the difficulty in stopping the process once fueling begins, preparation work normally finishes within several days of that, the official told the Asahi.
UN sanctions prohibit North Korea from any use of ballistic missile technology, and the imminent launch would amount to another major violation of UNSC resolutions following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test last month.
In its formal notification sent to UN agencies, North Korea provided flight coordinates similar to its successful launch of a three-stage Unha-3 rocket in December 2012.
The separated first stage was predicted to fall in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of South Korea, followed by a second stage splashdown the Philippine Sea.
In order to avoid any possible collision, Japanese and South Korean airlines will be rerouting a number of flights
during the launch window period.
Japan’s two biggest airlines — All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines — said they would be diverting planes that fly over waters off the Philippines.
The change will affect three ANA flights — from Tokyo’s Haneda airport to Manila, from Manila to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, and from Jakarta in Indonesia to Narita, the airline said.
Two JAL flights — one from Jakarta to Narita and another from Narita to Manila — will also be rerouted.