North Korean space officials said Tuesday all assembly and preparations for this week's planned satellite launch have been completed and denied it is a cover for a missile test.
Space officials told reporters at a news conference in Pyongyang that the launch of the three-stage rocket is on target to take place between Thursday and Monday as part of centennial birthday commemorations for late President Kim il-Sung, the country's founder.
The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite, equipped with a camera designed to capture images of North Korea's terrain and send back data about weather conditions, was being mounted on the rocket Tuesday, said Ryu Kum Chol, deputy director of the Space Development Department of the Korean Committee for Space Technology.
"All the assembly and preparations of the satellite launch are done," including fueling of the rocket, he said.
The United States, Britain, Japan and others have urged North Korea to cancel the launch, saying it would be considered a violation of UN resolutions prohibiting the country from nuclear and ballistic missile activity.
Experts say the Unha-3 carrier is the same type of rocket that would be used to launch a long-range missile aimed at 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 nuclear warhead on a long-range missile.
Ryu acknowledged similarities between the rockets used for launching a satellite and a ballistic missile. However, he noted that solid fuel is used to launch ballistic missiles, while the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite will be sent using liquid fuel.
Also, in order to be a success, a ballistic missile would require a large payload, he said.
"Our satellite weighs 100 kilograms. For a weapon, a 100-kilogram payload wouldn't be very effective," he said, dismissing assertions that the launch is a cover for developing missile technology as "nonsense."
Ryu also said a missile launch would require more sophisticated technology, and would not take place from a fixed, openly visible station.
"No country in the world would want to launch a ballistic missile from such an open site," he said.
Ryu said he could not provide any answers to questions about whether North Korea is planning a third nuclear test.
None of Ryu's points rule out the use of the launch, with or without a satellite on top, as a test for developing missiles. The United States and its allies suggest that even though the North may launch a satellite this time, the rocket technologies involved can easily be applied to missiles.
Effective long-range ballistic missiles do tend to use solid fuel, particularly when launched from mobile units, but that does not rule out using a liquid-fuel launch vehicle for a ballistic missile. The first ballistic missiles, Nazi Germany's V-2, were liquid fuel and several countries, including Iran, still use liquids.
This week's satellite launch from a new facility in the hamlet of Tongchang-ri on North Korea's west coast would be the country's third attempt since 1998. Two previous rockets, also named Unha, were mounted with experimental communications satellites and sent from the east coast.
North Korean officials say the 2009 satellite reached orbit, citing Russian confirmation. But the U.S. North American Aerospace Defence Command said Kwangmyongsong-2 did not make it into space, and shortly after the launch, the Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed senior Russian military official saying the same thing.
The third rendition will be North Korea's first working satellite, and is designed to transmit data to the Agriculture and Transportation ministries, said Paek Chang Ho, head of the North's Central Satellite Control Center.
However, Brian Weeden, a technical adviser at Secure World Foundation and a former Air Force officer at the U.S. Space Command, said he doubted the launch would succeed in sending a satellite into orbit. He speculated that the end goal is to test and develop their ballistic missile program.
100th anniversary celebrations
The planned launch is a highlight of two weeks of celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's April 15th birthday and the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Army.
North Korea also is preparing to formally install his grandson Kim Jong-un as North Korea's leader with two major political gatherings: a Workers' Party conference on Wednesday and a Supreme People's Assembly session Friday.
"As preparations at the pad near completion, Pyongyang is stepping up a public relations campaign intended to project the image of a strong, powerful nation at home and abroad that will culminate in the launch itself," said Joel Wit, visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
On Sunday, The Associated Press was among some 20 news organizations taken to the launch site in North Phyongan province, northwest of Pyongyang, to see preparations. All three stages of the 30-metre-tall Unha-3 rocket were visibly in position at the launch pad, and the one-metre-tall satellite ready for installation.
Kwangmyongsong means "bright, shining star," while Unha means "galaxy."
The United States says the launch would jeopardize a U.S.-North Korean agreement that called for providing Pyongyang with much-needed food aid in exchange for a freeze on nuclear activity, including a moratorium on long-range missile tests.
The UN Security Council, including China, condemned the last launch in April 2009. In protest, North Korea walked away from nuclear disarmament negotiations and conducted an atomic test weeks later that drew tightened UN sanctions.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich was quoted by the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency as saying that Moscow views Pyongyang's plans as "an example of ignoring decisions of the UN Security Council."
North Korean officials said the UN space treaty guarantees every nation's right to develop its space program.
"We do not recognize any UN Security Council resolution that violates our national sovereignty," Ryu said. "I believe that the right to have a satellite is the universal right of every nation on this planet."