TONGCHANG-RI, North Korea — North Korean space officials have moved all three stages of a long-range rocket into position for a controversial launch, vowing Sunday to push ahead with their plan in defiance of international warnings against violating a ban on missile activity.
The Associated Press was among foreign news agencies allowed a firsthand look at preparations under way at the coastal Sohae Satellite Station in northwestern North Korea.
North Korea announced plans last month to launch an observation satellite using a three-stage rocket during mid-April celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. The U.S., Japan, Britain and other nations have urged North Korea to cancel the launch, warning that firing the long-range rocket would violate U.N. resolutions and North Korea's promise to refrain from engaging in nuclear and missile activity.
North Korea maintains that the launch is a scientific achievement intended to improve the nation's faltering economy by providing detailed surveys of the countryside.
"Our country has the right and also the obligation to develop satellites and launching vehicles," Jang Myong Jin, general manager of the launch facility, said during a tour, citing the U.N. space treaty. "No matter what others say, we are doing this for peaceful purposes."
Experts say the Unha-3 rocket slated for liftoff between April 12 and 16 could also test long-range missile technology that might be used to strike the U.S. and other targets.
North Korea has tested two atomic devices, but is not believed to have mastered the technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range missile.
On Sunday, reporters were taken by train past desolate fields and sleepy farming hamlets to North Korea's new launch pad in Tongchang-ri in North Phyongan province, about 35 miles south of the border town of Sinuiju along North Korea's west coast.
All three stages of the 91-ton rocket, emblazoned with the North Korean flag and "Unha-3," were visibly in position at the towering launch pad, and fueling will begin soon, Jang said. He said preparations were well on track for liftoff and that international space, aviation and maritime authorities had been advised of the plan, but did not provide exact details on the timing of the fueling or the mounting of the satellite.
Engineers gave reporters a peek at the 220-pound Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite due to be mounted on the rocket, as well as a tour of the command center.
About two weeks before North Korea unveiled its rocket plan, Washington announced an agreement with the North to provide it with much-needed food aid in exchange for a freeze on nuclear activity, including a moratorium on long-range missile tests. Plans to send food aid, as well as a recently revived project to conduct joint searches for the remains of U.S. military personnel killed during the Korean War, have now been suspended.
Jang denied the launch was a cover for a missile test, saying the relatively diminutive rocket and fixed Sohae station would be "useless" for sending a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.
"During the recent senior-level North Korea-U.S. talks, our side made clear there's only a moratorium on long-range missile launches, not on satellite launches," he said. "The U.S. was well aware of this."