PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea plans to blast a satellite into space next month to mark the centenary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung, which the U.S. quickly called a "deal-breaker" for a new agreement where the U.S. would exchange food aid for nuclear concessions.
After Friday's surprise announcement, the United States said it is "very hard to imagine" it could go through with the exchange if the launch of the long-range rocket took place, and U.N. Security Council members said it may violate sanctions.
The North agreed to a moratorium on long-range launches as part of the food deal with Washington, but argues that satellite launches are part of a peaceful space program that is exempt from international disarmament obligations. The U.S., South Korea and other critics say the rocket technology overlaps with belligerent uses and condemn the satellite program as a disguised test of military missiles in defiance of a U.N. ban.
The launch is to take place three years after a similar launch in April 2009 drew widespread censure.
State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said U.S. now had "grave concerns" about the Feb. 29 agreement under which the North agreed with the U.S. to nuclear concessions and a moratorium on long-range missile tests in return for 240,000 tons of food aid.
Nuland said a rocket launch would call into question North Korea's good faith. She said that during the negotiations for the U.S.-North Korea agreement, "we made clear unequivocally that we considered that any satellite launch would be a deal-breaker."
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the current Security Council president, said the rocket launch would violate U.N. sanctions.
Japan and Russia urged Pyongyang to abandon the launch, calling it a violation of a U.N. resolution restricting the North's use of ballistic missile technology, and South Korea's Foreign Ministry called the plans a "grave provocation."
"We call on Pyongyang not to put itself in opposition to the international community," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a a statement.
Liftoff will take between April 12 and 16 from a west coast launch pad in North Phyongan province, a spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology said in a statement carried by state media.
He said the launch would be part of celebrations marking the April 15 centenary of the birth of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung.
"This is a grand event that shows off our national power," Pyongyang officer worker Choe Myong Suk told The Associated Press as rain fell in the North Korean capital Friday. "We can say that our country has proudly joined the ranks of developed countries."
North Koreans often repeat official state slogans when asked their views of current events.
Pyongyang's announcement comes as North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, seeks to solidify his rule of the nation of 24 million people in the wake of father Kim Jong Il's death in December.
"The window for the launch is important in terms of the domestic politics of the North," said Daniel Pinkston, an expert on North Korea's weapons programs at the International Crisis Group. He said the launch serves to underline North Korea's military capabilities and reinforce Kim's fledgling rule.
Kim Jong Il began grooming the son to take over as leader after suffering a stroke in 2008. Footage aired Friday on state-run TV showed Kim Jong Un observing the 2009 rocket launch.
Such a launch aims to reinforce unity at home by provoking new tensions that will allow its leadership to portray the country as beset by hostile forces. A third nuclear test could be next, Pinkston said.
The launch also jeopardizes the recent food aid deal with the U.S., he said.
"I can't see how the U.S. is going to deliver this food aid," he said. "I think this is going to kill it."
North Korea agreed last month to suspend uranium enrichment, place a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and to allow back U.N. weapons inspectors in exchange for much-needed food aid. Uranium enrichment is one way to make atomic bombs. In the past North Korea has also weaponized plutonium for nuclear devices.
The U.S. comments on Friday did leave the door open for the agreement to go ahead if the North did not conduct the launch.
Nuland said the U.S. envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies, spoke overnight to other partners in the ongoing six-nation talks on North Korea — China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. She said they all agreed to "use their influence" to encourage the North "not to violate their international obligations and to recommit to the leap day agreement. We'll see if that is the way this goes."
North Korea called the April 2009 launch a bid to send a communications satellite into space, but it was widely viewed in the West as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from engaging in nuclear and ballistic missile activity.
Shortly after the 2009 launch from an east coast station, Pyongyang declared that it would abandon six-nation negotiations on offering the North aid and concessions in exchange for nuclear disarmament. And weeks later, North Korea tested a nuclear device, the second in three years — earning the regime tightened U.N. sanctions.
Japan's Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said going ahead with the launch would harm peace and stability in the region. Japan has set up a crisis management task force to monitor the situation and is cooperating with the U.S. and South Korea.
North Korea is proud of its nuclear and missile programs, which it claims are necessary to protect itself against the United States, which stations more than 28,000 troops in South Korea and has more troops as well as nuclear-powered warships in the region.
"This is an event that shows how strong our self-reliant economy is," Pyongyang resident Song Jong Chol told AP. "This is the happiest of happy occasions."
North Korea and the United States fought on opposite sides of the three-year Korean War, which ended in a truce in 1953. They have never signed a peace treaty.
North Korea is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for four to eight "primitive" atomic bombs, according to scientist Siegfried Hecker of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Pyongyang also announced in 2009 that it would begin enriching uranium, and revealed the facility to Hecker in November 2010.
Scientists believe North Korea is working toward building a device small enough to mount on a rocket capable of reaching the United States. The same rocket used for a satellite could be used for a long-range missile.
The North Korean space committee spokesman said a Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite designed to orbit the earth will be mounted on an Unha-3 rocket from the Sohae station in Cholsan County. He called it a "working" satellite that was an improvement over two previous "experimental" satellites.
The spokesman said North Korea would abide by international regulations governing the launch of satellites for "peaceful" scientific purposes and that an orbit was chosen to avoid showering debris on neighboring nations.
North Korea provided similar notice in 2009, but launched the rocket over Japan despite warnings from world leaders that it would set the nation on a path of isolation.
In 2009, North Korea said an experimental communications satellite mounted on a rocket was sent into space playing "Song of Gen. Kim Il Sung" and "Song of Gen. Kim Jong Il."
The U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command and South Korea's Defense Ministry said no satellite made it into orbit.
South Korea is due to host the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in two weeks, and North Korea's nuclear program was expected to be discussed on the sidelines of the gathering.
Associated Press writers Kim Kwang Hyon and Pak Won Il in Pyongyang; Jean H. Lee, Stephen Wright and Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo; Mat Pennington in Washington; and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.