SEOUL, South Korea — World leaders sought a unified response Thursday to North Korea's latest provocation as the communist regime made final preparations for a controversial rocket launch and Japan braced for the possibility of falling debris.
With tensions already high, the North ratcheted up its militaristic rhetoric, threatening a "thunderbolt of fire" if Japan were to try to intercept the multistage rocket and warning U.S. ships _ dispatched to monitor the launch _ to back off or risk getting hit, too.
North Korea says it will send a communications satellite into orbit sometime from Saturday to Wednesday. The U.S., South Korea and Japan think the reclusive country is using the launch to test long-range missile technology; they have warned the move would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution banning the North from ballistic activity.
The issue was top of the agenda when President Barack Obama met Thursday with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in London. Obama pledged to push for "peace and stability," while Lee's office issued a statement saying the two leaders agreed to keep working on a verifiable dismantling of North Korea's worrisome nuclear programs.
"They agreed on the need for a stern, united response from the international community if North Korea launches a long-range rocket, and to work together in the course of that," the statement added.
While Russia appeared to be edging closer to Washington's position in an apparent show of goodwill, a strong united response likely would prove difficult given that China _ the North's closest ally _ has veto power in the Security Council. Beijing continued to urge all sides to show restraint to avoid making the situation worse.
CNN television said on its Web site that Pyongyang has started to fuel the rocket. The report, citing an unidentified senior U.S. military official, said the move indicates final preparations for the launch. Experts say the missile can be fired about three to four days after fueling begins.
A senior U.S. defense official in Washington said he was not sure the report was correct.
"It's frankly unclear whether fueling operations have begun; the intelligence is ambiguous as of this morning," the official said on condition of anonymity because it concerned intelligence.
"There is activity around it (the launch site), but nothing that concretely points to fueling operations (being) under way," he said.
Japanese and South Korean officials also could not immediately confirm the report.
In Washington, U.S. lawmakers are urging Obama to shoot down the rocket if it endangers the United States or its allies. But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a TV interview aired Sunday that the U.S. had no plans to intercept the rocket though it might consider it if an "aberrant missile" were headed to Hawaii "or something like that."
The North is warning against any efforts to intercept the rocket, take the issue to the Security Council or even monitor the launch. It says its armed forces are at a high level of combat-readiness.
The North has said debris from the rocket could fall off Japan's northern coast, so Tokyo has deployed warships with anti-missile systems to the area and set up Patriot missile interceptors. It says it has no intention of trying to shoot down the rocket itself.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted unidentified officials as saying the North had moved a squadron of MiG-23 fighter jets to a base near the launch site in what appeared to be a response to Japan's deployment. Seoul's Defense Ministry declined to confirm the reports.
"If Japan imprudently carries out an act of intercepting our peaceful satellite, our people's army will hand a thunderbolt of fire to not only interceptor means already deployed, but also key targets," said a report Thursday by the North's official Korean Central News Agency that quoted the general staff of its military.
KCNA also made a veiled threat against the U.S. In an apparent reference to American warships that have reportedly set sail to monitor the launch, the Korean-language version of the report said: "The United States should immediately withdraw armed forces deployed if it does not want to receive damage."
An English version said the U.S. forces could be hit in a retaliatory strike against Japan.
On Wednesday, the North threatened to shoot down any spy planes that intrude into its airspace.
Japan's Kyodo news agency said the rocket is expected to reach Japan about 10 minutes after launch, so crisis control officials opened an emergency center in the northern part of the country, tested hot lines and readied public address systems to warn residents as soon as confirmation comes of liftoff.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Jae-Soon Chang in Seoul, Mark S. Smith in London, Shino Yuasa in Tokyo, Mari Yamaguchi in Akita, Japan, and Pauline Jelinek in Washington DC contributed to this report.