GeoEye

Source: GeoEye

North Korea is in the final stages of readying the rocket for its much discussed launch later this month. Recent satellite images show that preparations for the launch are moving forward on schedule, and the rocket will soon be built inside the already constructed launch tower.

The level of activity at the launch pad and tower indicates that the rocket should be in place within days, said Allison Puccioni, an image analyst for defense and security intelligence company IHS Jane's.

North Korea plans to launch the Unha-3 rocket between April 12 and 16, part of the 100th birthday celebration for Eternal President Kim Il-Sung. The rocket will be the first launched from the new Sohae Launch Station, which was completed sometime between 2008 and 2011, instead of Tonghae-Musudan, the location of past launches.

Unlike Tonghae, which was built for smaller rockets and then modified to accommodate larger rockets, Sohae is a far more specialised facility with a larger pad, larger assembly/checkout building, and a dedicated rail terminal to accommodate the transportation of the rocket stages, noted Puccioni.

A fixture on the launch platform can be removed to accommodate a larger rocket body. This allowance for modification not only indicates North Korea’s continued aspirations for its own rocket capabilities but also its reported policy of potentially facilitating launches from other countries.

North Korea says that the rocket is only meant to send a research satellite into orbit, but the United States and South Korea both believe that the launch is really a test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile, one that could possibly carry a nuclear warhead in the future. In 2009, Pyongyang said it had launched a space exploration satellite on the back of an Unha-2 rocket, but Russian observers said that the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite never made it to space, leading the U.S. and the European Union to conclude that it was a cover for a missile test.

The rocket North Korea is sending up this month is expected to fly over Japan and break apart 150 miles off the northern coast of the Philippines. Japan is preparing for the launch, placing its own missiles in sites across the island of Okinawa. Japan will be monitoring the North Korean projectile as it flies and will be prepared to shoot it down if the rocket or rocket parts fly too far into Japanese airspace.

Washington is also closely monitoring the North Korea's preparations, which have already affected the Feb. 29 deal to send 240,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea if Pyongyang ends all long-range missile tests.

We are monitoring very closely the prospect of a missile launch. We take this prospect very seriously, Pentagon spokesman George Little told the AFP on Thursday. We have the means at our disposal to track very closely what's happening.