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(News Focus) N. Korea has multiple cards behind rocket launch plan, analysts say

All Headlines 22:58 December 01, 2012

SEOUL, Dec. 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korea appears to have multiple motivations behind its plan to launch a long-range rocket for the second time in less than a year, analysts in Seoul said Saturday.

The North's Korean Committee for Space Technology announced earlier in the day that it will fire off a long-range rocket between Dec. 10 and 22, a move that is certain to escalate tension on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea claims that the planned rocket launch is to put a "working satellite" in orbit but outside experts believe that it is a disguised attempt to test its long-range missile technology.

Analysts in Seoul speculate that the North's domestic political demand must have been the foremost consideration in determining the timing of the rocket launch, as the communist country is set to mark the first anniversary Dec. 17 of the death of its late leader, Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un.

"North Korea seems to be striving to establish its image as a space power as the first anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death comes near," said Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. "Through such efforts, Pyongyang also appears to try to strengthen domestic foundation for the Kim Jong-un regime."

Analysts think that the rocket launch may also be an attempt by North Korea to put pressure on the second-term administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and influence South Korea's presidential election scheduled for Dec. 19.

After the failure of its much-hyped rocket launch in April, North Korea may urgently need a successful launch to rally its people's unity and support for the new leader, they say.

They also note that the rocket launch, in addition, is widely seen as Pyongyang's symbolic gesture to officially usher in a prosperous and powerful nation.

The rocket launch earlier this year was carried out on April 13, two days before the centennial of the birth of the country's late founding leader Kim Il-sung. The rocket, however, disintegrated into pieces seconds after liftoff and crashed into the sea off South Korea's west coast.

Another attempt to launch the same rocket only eight months later is raising questions whether the North has successfully overcome technological flaws that were found in the April launch.

According to the analysts, the North may use the rocket launch to gauge the international community's policy towards it amid the rapidly changing security and other situations in Northeast Asia.

Besides the leadership change in the U.S. and South Korea, China has elected Xi Jinping as its new leader, while Japan will hold a general election on Dec. 16.

While claiming its right to the peaceful use of space, North Korea may have decided to launch another rocket as it would like to ascertain what leverage regional powers would use vis-a-vis its rocket launch -- dialogue or sanctions, according to the analysts.

The launch, if carried out, is expected to draw international condemnation as it violates a U.N. resolution that bans the communist nation from any ballistic missile activity. The North is currently under U.N. sanctions for its earlier missile and nuclear activities.

South Korea, the United States and other regional powers have urged Pyongyang to call off the launch, denouncing it as a disguised long-range missile test, banned under a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Analysts have voiced concern that any possible U.N. condemnation or tightened sanctions could push North Korea to carry out another nuclear test.

In 2006, the provocative regime carried out its first nuclear test, three months after the test-firing of its long-range Taepodong-2 rocket. The second nuclear test in 2009 came just one month after a long-range rocket launch. North Korea quit disarmament-for-aid talks in April 2009 in protest of international condemnation over its long-range rocket launch earlier that month.

"North Korea has decided to push ahead with its rocket launch despite warnings from the international community. International criticism of the North's behavior is unavoidable," Kim Yeon-chul, a professor at Inje University, said. "The second-term Obama administration may attempt to seek dialogue with the North depending on the attitude of South Korea's new government."

Political watchers in Seoul forecast that the rocket launch will certainly have an impact on the upcoming South Korean presidential polls by amplifying uncertainties on the Korean Peninsula.

Traditionally, North Korean military provocations have created circumstances favorable to either of South Korea's conservative and liberal parties.

"North Korea could have adjusted the timing for its rocket launch but eventually chose the period of South Korea's presidential election. As a result, a certain impact will be inevitable," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, also said, "North Korea has so far used its nuclear and missile tests as a card to put pressure on the United States. Considering the planned timing of the launch, the North seems to have multiple intentions, as it will surely influence the South Korean presidential election."

The North's nuclear and missile programs have long been a regional security concern. The country is believed to have advanced ballistic missile technology, though it is still not clear whether it has mastered the technology to put a nuclear warhead on a missile.

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