South Korea accused North Korea on Monday of trying to develop a nuclear-armed missile through a satellite launch next month, after Pyongyang dismissed international calls to abandon the exercise.
“Our government defines North Korea’s so-called working satellite launch plan as a grave provocation to develop a long-distance delivery means for nuclear weapons by using ballistic missile technology,” said presidential spokesman Park Jeong-Ha.
The North announced Friday it would launch a rocket between April 12-16 to put a satellite into orbit for peaceful purposes.
The United States and other nations see the launch as a disguised long-range missile test, which would breach a United Nations ban and violate last month’s denuclearisation deal with Washington.
The North is thought to have enough plutonium for perhaps six to eight nuclear weapons, but it is unclear whether it can build a nuclear warhead for a missile.
The South issued its latest condemnation after President Lee Myung-Bak chaired a meeting of foreign and security ministers.
It said it would work closely with the United States, Japan, China, Russia and the European Union to handle the issue during next week’s nuclear security summit in Seoul.
The North Sunday rejected international appeals to call off the launch, timed to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of founding president Kim Il-Sung.
Its official news agency called the criticism “a base move… to encroach upon our sovereignty” and accused the United States and Japan of “space espionage” by monitoring other nations with their own satellites.
The launch by the impoverished but nuclear-armed state seems likely to kill off a February 29 agreement with Washington, which had raised hopes of eased tensions under Pyongyang’s new young leader Kim Jong-Un.
The North agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment programme, along with long-range missile launches and nuclear tests, in return for 240,000 tonnes of much-needed US food aid.
It maintains that a satellite launch is not a missile test.
But the US State Department has called the plan “highly provocative” and voiced doubt over providing the food if the launch goes ahead.
Japan, Russia and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have called on the North to change its mind and even China, the North’s closest ally, expressed concern.
Pyongyang’s last long-range rocket launch on April 5, 2009, also purportedly to put a satellite into orbit, brought UN Security Council condemnation and tightened sanctions.
The North quit six-party nuclear disarmament talks in protest at the censure and conducted its second atomic weapons test in May that year.
Some analysts saw a similar scenario developing this time.
“Seen in the previous cases, North Korea has a pattern of conducting nuclear tests after missile tests,” Yun Duk-Min of the South’s Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security, told the Korea JoongAng Daily.
The North’s first nuclear test in October 2006 came three months after a long-range rocket launch.