REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- Two weeks after agreeing to freeze its weapons programs in return for food aid, North Korea announced Friday it is preparing to launch a satellite in mid-April to mark the 100th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth.
Although North Korea insisted its intentions are peaceful, the timing of the launch could scuttle the newly inked deal with Washington. The technology employed in shooting a satellite into orbit is essentially the same as a long-range missile test. Two previous tests, in 1998 and 2009, were also described by Pyongyang as satellite launches.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department called the announcement of the launch "highly provocative."
"Such a missile launch would pose a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea's recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
The food-aid deal announced Feb. 29 called for North Korea to suspend its nuclear and long-range missile programs, raising hopes that the new, youthful leader, Kim Jong Un, is keener to normalize relations with the United States than his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December.
North Korea watchers believe that the 180-degree turn could indicate a split within the leadership in Pyongyang. At a closed forum this month in New York, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told U.S. officials “the new generation wants peace and no longer wants to fight the United States," according to an attendee at the meeting who asked not to be quoted by name.
"It is very difficult to pinpoint where the North Koreans stand right now," said Kim Chul-woo, an analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. “Kim Jong Un might want to improve relations with the United States, but he also needs to consolidate his position with the military.”
Even given a track record of broken promises, North Korea’s apparent reversal is puzzling, said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
"Why did they make a deal if two weeks later they’re going to scuttle it, without even getting anything out of it?" asked Delury. “This doesn’t make sense in the standard North Korean playbook.”
Robert King, the U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights, had met with North Korean officials a week ago in Beijing to work out the details for 240,000 metric tons of food aid, and deliveries were supposed to start within weeks. “This is going to make it politically difficult for President Obama to go ahead with the aid," said Delury.
The announcement out of Pyongyang, attributed to the Korean Committee for Space Technology, said that the satellite launch would take place between April 12 and 16 from Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province.
"A safe flight orbit has been chosen so that carrier rocket debris to be generated during the flight would not have any impact on neighboring countries," the announcement said.
The statement said the launch was timed for a national holiday, April 15, which is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder and grandfather of the current leader. North Korea had been planning for years to hold nationwide celebrations for the centennial, but the recent death of Kim Jong Il has forced them to cut back the program.
The satellite has been named Kwangmyongsong, meaning "Bright Star," the same as the 1998 and 2009 satellites. After the 1998 launch, North Korea announced the satellite broadcast in Morse code “The Song of Kim Il Sung.”
Military analysts believe that North Korea’s satellite program is in fact a cover for testing intercontinental ballistic missile technology.
-- Barbara Demick
Jung Yoon Choi of the Times’ Seoul bureau contributed to this report.
Photo: War veterans and others gather in Seoul to pay tribute to the sailors killed aboard the South Korean warship sunk by North Korea in March 2010. Credit: Lee Jin-man / Associated Press