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Despite Warnings, North Korea Readies Rocket


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

North Korea says that it's now fueling the long-range rocket it plans to launch into space. It's the latest step in a tense situation. North Korea says it's launching a weather satellite, in honor of the centennial of the birth of founding leader Kim Il Sung. But the U.S. and North Korea's neighbors say it's a disguised long-range missile test that violates the United Nation's ban.

NPR's Louisa Lim joins us now from Seoul for more. And Louisa, could you please begin by reminding us why this launch is such a problem for North Korea's neighbors and the U.S.?

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Well, North Korea would be violating international agreements by carrying out this launch. So for that reason, of course, it's very concerning. But, of course, the bigger concern is that this would be the longest range rocket that it has ever used, and it would, of course, take North Korea one step closer to having a weapon which could threaten U.S. soil. So there are all kinds of military implications if this launch is to be successful.

MONTAGNE: So despite warnings from the West, North Korea seems determined to go ahead with this.

LIM: So far, it certainly does. The launch window opens at about 10 PM Eastern Standard Time. And experts here in Seoul say weather conditions tomorrow are the most favorable. So it means it could happen sooner, rather than later.

MONTAGNE: Do we know anything more from those North Korean officials who've been talking to the press?

LIM: Well, I mean, one thing that we do know is that it is unusual that they have been talking to the press. They've invited the foreign media into the country. They've taken them to the brand new launch pad, and they've also taken them to the command center today.

What was interesting today was that one official, Park Sheng Ho, who is the head of the Satellite Control Center, sums up the North Korean mood, saying that we don't really care about opinions from the outside. So it does seem that they are determined to go ahead with this test, despite condemnation from all sides.

MONTAGNE: So where could this all go? Where is North Korea going with all of this?

LIM: Well, the fear is that there could be additional provocations from North Korea. And over the weekend, South Korean intelligence sources said that North Korea had been digging underground tunnels at the site where it had carried out two nuclear tests in the past. So that is a sign that a nuclear test - North Korea's third - could follow relatively soon after the rocket launch. And this is a pattern that we've seen before.

In 2009, for example, there was rocket launch then, and the North Koreans faced UN condemnation and sanctions. And, because of those, they claimed to be very offended and said that gave them a political pretext to do a nuclear test. So experts here in Seoul fear that a nuclear test could follow quite soon in the future.

MONTAGNE: What exactly, though, does North Korea hope to accomplish with this?

LIM: Well, really, there a couple of things. Primarily, it's for domestic purposes. It's sending a message to North Korea's own people. I mean, they're having this very big celebration, the 100th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung, which has been described to me as something like a cross between Christmas, Independence Day and New Year all rolled up in one. And so the North Koreans need something to show people the North Korea's - the country's progress.

Also, they have a new leader, Kim Jong Un, so this is another way of cementing his legitimacy. So there's that. But then they're also sending a message to the international community, that North Korea wants to be taken seriously, and it wants to be treated as an international power.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, how is the mood there in Seoul, South Korea, where you are, and also other neighbors?

LIM: Well, in Seoul surprisingly, the mood is very calm, indeed. It seems the South Koreans have simply become used to living in the shadow of provocations by North Korea. But elsewhere, there's a lot more fear. And in Japan, they've put in place Patriot missile batteries and deployed three warships and vowed to shoot down any parts of the rocket that might fly over their territory. And even the Chinese, who are North Korea's closest allies, have called in the North Koreans a couple of times to upbraid them for this test. So elsewhere in Asia, there's an awful lot of concern.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Louisa Lim, speaking to us from Seoul. Thank you very much.

LIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.