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North Korea Rocket Test: Officials Deny Missile Launch, Claim Satellite Ready

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A North Korean man stands near a billboard showing a rocket launch and calling for the building of a strong and prosperous nation
A North Korean man stands near a billboard showing a rocket launch and calling for the building of a strong and prosperous nation" in Pyongyang, Tuesday, April 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korean space officials say the rocket built to carry a satellite into space is ready for liftoff this week as the nation's leadership makes a series of appointments before a major political gathering.

Workers' Party delegates are scheduled to convene Wednesday for the fourth conference of North Korea's ruling political party, where new leader Kim Jong Un is expected to inherit titles once held by his father, the late Kim Jong Il.

North Korea's national flag and the red hammer-and-sickle flag of the Workers' Party fluttered across chilly Pyongyang on Tuesday as delegates toured historic sites, including the birthplace of late President Kim Il Sung. North Korea celebrates the 100th anniversary of his birth Sunday, a major milestone in the country he founded.

New posters in the capital welcomed the delegates from provincial towns across the country. Workers scrambled to spruce up the city, painting railings a military green and crouching along roads to plant flowers.

Space officials, meanwhile, told foreign journalists at a news conference that the launch of the three-stage rocket was on target to take place between Thursday and Monday as part of the centennial birthday commemorations for Kim Il Sung.

"All the assembly and preparations of the satellite launch are done," including fueling of the rocket, Ryu Kum Chol, deputy director of the Space Development Department of the Korean Committee for Space Technology, said at the briefing at the Yanggakdo Hotel.

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.

The United States, Britain, Japan and others have urged North Korea to cancel the launch, saying it would be considered a violation of U.N. resolutions prohibiting the country from nuclear and ballistic missile activity.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the launch would be a direct threat to regional security and said the U.S. would pursue "appropriate action" at the U.N. Security Council if North Korea goes ahead with it.

Clinton made the comments Tuesday after meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, who said Japan would cooperate with Washington and the international community in framing its response.

Clinton also said that history shows North Korea may follow the launch with "additional provocations." She didn't elaborate.

In New York, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who is serving as the Security Council president this month, said a North Korean launch of a ballistic missile would be a "blatant violation" of two council resolutions.

"There is no disagreement among members of the council that this is a provocative act, and an act that the North Koreans should refrain from undertaking," Rice said.

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 dismissed assertions that the launch is a cover for developing missile technology, calling the accusations "nonsense."

Ryu 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.

He said the U.N. space treaty guarantees every nation's right to develop its space program.

"We do not recognize any U.N. 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."

Kwangmyongsong means "bright, shining star," while Unha means "galaxy."

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 Defense 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.

The planned launch is a highlight of celebrations to mark Kim Il Sung's birthday and the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Army. "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.

North Korea also is preparing to formally install Kim Jong Un as North Korea's supreme leader at two major political gatherings: a Workers' Party conference on Wednesday and a Supreme People's Assembly session Friday.

Kim Jong Un is expected to be named general secretary of the Workers' Party, the top party post and one of the highest positions in North Korea.

After being named vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission in September 2010, he is likely to be promoted to chairman, the post previously held by his father, analysts said.

Another promotion anticipated Wednesday was the elevation of Kim to standing member of the Central Committee's powerful Political Bureau, which currently has only three members and two vacancies created by the deaths of Kim Jong Il and high-ranking military official Jo Myong Rok.

Kim may also become chairman of the National Defense Commission – unless the title is reserved eternally for Kim Jong Il, much like Kim Il Sung remains president nearly 18 years after his 1994 death.

On Tuesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency referred to Kim Jong Gak on as People's Armed Forces Minister, a title equivalent to defense minister, in what appeared to be a promotion. Two other senior officials were promoted to vice marshal as part of a reshuffle ahead of the party conference and legislative meeting.

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Associated Press writers Foster Klug in Seoul, Matthew Pennington in Annapolis, Maryland, and Peter James Spielmann at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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Follow AP's Korea bureau chief for Pyongyang and Seoul at twitter.com/newsjean.

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