North Korea rocket launch appears imminent

BEIJING — The spectacle unfolding on a launchpad on the west coast of North Korea creates a picture of a boastful and media-savvy regime willing to brush off international condemnation — but perhaps not completely unified behind its youthful new leader.

Despite warnings from the United States, as well as China and Russia, Pyongyang said Wednesday that it was fueling a three-stage rocket for imminent launch, depending on weather conditions.

“We don’t really care about the opinions from the outside. This is critical in order to develop our national economy,” Paek Chang Ho, head of the satellite control center at the Korean Committee for Space Technology, told reporters who were invited to North Korea for the occasion.

PHOTOS: Girding for a rocket launch

Paek said that a weather satellite had been installed on the rocket as part of North Korea’s “peaceful space program.”

The rocket launch is the centerpiece of the celebrations taking place this week to mark the centennial of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth, April 15, 1912 — the same day, North Koreans sometimes note with irony, as the sinking of the Titanic.

For at least four years, propagandists have been promising North Koreans that they would live in a “strong and prosperous” nation by 2012, making the launch a welcome distraction from the despair in one of the world’s hungriest nations. One-third of North Korean children are reported to be permanently stunted because of chronic malnutrition. North Korea recently had to lower the minimum height requirement for soldiers to 4 feet, 9 inches.

The Defense Ministry in rival South Korea released figures saying that North Korea could afford to feed its population for a year with the money it is spending on the missile launch.

Televised video from Pyongyang showed well-coiffed women in fluorescent pink gowns and the usually drab walls plastered with poster-color paintings of raised fists in a display of fealty to the regime.

Workers in blue helmets are shown on scaffolding preparing the missile, which is emblazoned with the North Korean flag and the name “Unha 3,” meaning “Galaxy.” A plastic tarpaulin was draped over the rocket in the latest shots, making it difficult to confirm North Korea’s claim that it was carrying a weather satellite.

On Wednesday, North Korea’s youthful new leader, Kim Jong Un, was named to the new position of first secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party. Kim, in his late 20s and Swiss-educated, is grandson of Kim Il Sung and the son of Kim Jong Il, who died in December. Kim Jong Il was posthumously given the title “eternal general secretary.”

Officials of the U.S. and other countries fear that North Korea’s missile program masks an effort to develop a delivery system for a nuclear weapon.

North Korea struck a deal Feb. 29 to suspend its weapons program in return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States, but the U.S. says the aid will not be delivered if North Korea goes ahead with the launch.

The rapid collapse of the deal raises the possibility of a rift in the leadership between those who would like to end North Korea’s pariah status and hard-liners in the military, with the young, untested leader perhaps caught in the middle.

“What is perplexing is that they left benefits on the table. Normally they would cash in on the agreement before reneging,” said Scott Snyder, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a book on North Korean negotiating behavior.

“It may suggest inexperience in the leadership or bureaucratic cleavage,” Snyder said. “My own interpretation is that these [the food deal and the missile launch] were behests by Kim Jong Il before he died and nobody knew how they fit together.”

North Korea’s critics have expressed dismay over the highly public spectacle of the launch, as though Pyongyang was taking extra steps to thumb its nose at the United States.

“At this point, North Korea is getting the upper hand. They’re using the Western media to spread their propaganda message to the world,” said Kim Chul-woo, a former South Korean Defense Ministry official.

North Korea has tried three times to put a satellite into orbit. Efforts in 1998, 2006 and 2009 either failed entirely or were unsuccessful in the final stage.

Unlike previous efforts, which were fired east toward Japan, this one is headed due south, passing just 150 miles east of Shanghai, 70 miles west of South Korea and landing near the Philippines, according to an analysis by David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Chinese President Hu Jintao in a statement Wednesday congratulated Kim Jong Un on his promotion, but made no mention of the imminent test.

Beijing has its own history of launching satellites to commemorate Communist Party congresses and the death anniversary of Mao Tse-tung.

“This is an old Communist tradition, presenting a gift to the nation in the form of high technology,” said Sima Nan, a pro-North Korea scholar in Beijing who was planning to visit Pyongyang for the launch. “It is natural that North Korea wants to demonstrate their capabilities and increase their bargaining power with the United States.”

PHOTOS: Girding for a rocket launch