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All eyes on North Korea’s ‘missile’ launch

North Korea said preparations to launch a communications satellite into space were complete Saturday morning, and liftoff was imminent.

Spy satellites trained high-resolution cameras on a coastal launch pad for a launch the North earlier advised international authorities would take place sometime between Saturday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (0200 to 0700GMT).

“Preparations for launching ‘Kwangmyongsong-2,’ an experimental communications satellite, by carrier rocket ‘Unha-2’ have been completed at the satellite launching ground in the east coastal area,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported, citing information from the Korean Committee of Space Technology. “The satellite will be launched soon.”

Conditions were cloudy over the launch area on Saturday — not perfect, but without the strong winds that could force a delay.

North Korea is pressing ahead despite mounting international pressure to call off a launch President Barack Obama said Friday would be “provocative.”

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo suspect North Korea’s real motive is to test its long-range missile technology. The plans have sparked alarm because North Korea has acknowledged it has nuclear weapons and has repeatedly broken promises to shelve its nuclear program or halt rocket tests.

Obama, appearing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Strasbourg, France, said the launch should be stopped. The American president said the US will “take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that it can’t threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity.”

US, Japan and South Korea deployed warships with radar and other surveillance equipment in the waters near the communist nation to monitor the launch.

Efforts to persuade North Korea to give up the plan continued, though there were no signs of a last-minute diplomatic breakthrough.

UN Security Council diplomats, anticipating a weekend emergency session if the launch proceeds, said a draft resolution had begun circulating that could essentially reaffirm and tighten enforcement of the demands and sanctions of a resolution passed in October 2006 after a North Korean nuclear test. It banned North Korea from ballistic missile activity.

A strong united response likely would prove difficult, however, because China and Russia hold veto power in the council and could argue that non-military space missions are exempt.

Two US destroyers are believed to have departed from South Korea to monitor the launch. South Korea is using its destroyer equipped with Aegis ballistic missile defense technology, said a Seoul military official who asked not to be identified, citing department policy.

North Korea has complained that the US is using high-altitude U-2 spy planes and has warned the aircraft would be shot down if they intrude into its airspace.

Japan has deployed warships and Patriot missile interceptors off its northern coast to shoot down any wayward rocket parts that the North has said might fall over the area. Tokyo has said it is only protecting its territory and has no intention of trying to shoot down the rocket itself, but North Korea accused Japan of inciting militarism at home to justify developing a nuclear weapons program of its own.

The North has said its rocket will fly over Japan, its first stage expected to fall in waters less than 75 miles (120 kilometers) from Japan’s northwestern shore and the second stage dropping in the Pacific between Japan and Hawaii.

Pressure on Pyongyang to drop the plan has been intense. China, North Korea’s closest ally, said it was working to avert a launch “to the last minute,” Chinese President Hu Jintao told his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, on Friday in London, according to Lee’s spokeswoman, Lee Dong-kwan.

Hu agreed with Lee that the “rocket launch would negatively affect peace and stability in Northeast Asia and there should be a discussion among related countries” after it takes place, Lee’s office said.

Stephen Bosworth, the US envoy on North Korea, said the communist nation would face consequences if the launch goes ahead.

“Whether it’s a satellite launch or a missile launch in our judgment makes no difference. It is a provocative act, and we hope that they will still reconsider,” Bosworth said.

But he also said he is prepared to go to Pyongyang after the “dust from the missiles settles” in order to restart six-nation negotiations aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN and ex-undersecretary of state in charge of the North Korean nuclear dossier, called the launch “essentially an act of defiance against the Security Council.”

“A wrist slap by the Security Council won’t mean anything and, in fact, I think the North Koreans will take that as a sign of weakness,” he said. “It’ll say they got away with the test.”

North Korea has warned against any efforts to censure it, claiming it has the right to the peaceful use of outer space. It also has threatened retaliation against any efforts to intercept the rocket, telling Japan such a move would mean “war.”

South Korea has set up task forces, including at the Defense Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff, to monitor and swiftly respond to a launch. The Foreign Ministry met Saturday morning to draw up post-launch measures.

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