North Korean officials said Wednesday they have begun injecting fuel into a rocket for an imminent space launch, raising the stakes in an escalating standoff with its regional neighbors and the United States.
Paek Chang Ho, chief of North Korea's launch command center, announced the action to a visiting group of international reporters, saying fuel was being loaded into the rocket as he spoke. The journalists, who visited the launch site Sunday, were able to view the activity by video, which was fed live to the remote command center Wednesday.
Paek also said a weather satellite has been installed on the rocket, which is set for launch sometime between Thursday and Monday, depending on weather conditions. The video showed a tarpaulin draped over the top of the rocket, making that claim impossible to confirm.
The scheduled launch has angered many of North Korea's neighbors, which see the action as ploy to test a ballistic missile that could later be fitted with a nuclear warhead.
Ryu Gum Chol, deputy director of North Korea's space program, told a reporter from VOA's Korean service that the only purpose of the launch is space exploration.
"It seems to me that your worries are unfounded. I reckon that the timing is important now, and you will know everything once you attend the April 15 centenary) of the birth of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung). The rocket we have developed is only for the purpose of space exploration, so to claim it is for ballistic missile development is illogical."
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that the launch has raised doubts about North Korea's claims that it wants to improve ties with its neighbors and the United States.
In a speech Tuesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Clinton noted that the launch comes just weeks after Pyongyang agreed to suspend its nuclear and missile programs.
"The speed of the turnaround raises questions about Pyongyang's seriousness in saying that it desires to improve relations with us and its neighbors. This launch will give credence to the view that North Korean leaders see improved relations with the outside world as a threat to the existence of their system. And recent history strongly suggests that additional provocations may follow.''
U.S. officials fear that Pyongyang may be planning to follow the launch with what would be its third underground nuclear weapons test. Satellite intelligence photographs made available to VOA and other news organizations this week show evidence of preparations for such a test.
North Korea's launch plan has derailed a recent agreement with the United States, under which Pyongyang agreed to suspend its nuclear weapons and missile programs. The United States was to have delivered 240,000 tons of badly needed food aid to the North.
Clinton said Tuesday that by launching the rocket, Pyongyang was breaking that agreement as well as violating a U.N. Security Council ban on any North Korean ballistic missile testing.
But Ryu said was no clause in the agreement with the United States banning a peaceful satellite launch.
"As far as we know, there is no clause about banning peaceful satellite launch included in the agreement of February 29th talks. I don't think anything else will happen."
Ryu's comment that nothing else will happen is perhaps a reference to the reports of a coming nuclear test.
Japan and South Korea have both threatened to try to shoot down the rocket if it strays over their territory, an action Pyongyang has said would amount to a declaration of war.
The rocket's first stage is planned to fall into the ocean about 160 kilometers from the Philippines, prompting that country to reschedule air traffic and order fishing boats to avoid the area.