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N. Korea's space agency acknowledges rocket launch possibility for first time

The statement from North Korea's space agency represents Pyongyang's first official acknowledgment of the possibility that it may launch a long-range rocket around next month's 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party.

Speculation has long persisted that the communist nation could carry out a long-range rocket launch to commemorate the Oct. 10 anniversary even after a conciliatory mood was created between the two Koreas following a tense military standoff last month.

On Monday night, the North's space agency, the National Aerospace Development Administration, issued a statement laden with strong hints that the country could forge ahead with a satellite launch to mark the anniversary. That marks the first time Pyongyang's has mentioned such a possibility.

The agency said its rocket and satellite scientists, who succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit aboard a long-range rocket in late 2012, are working hard to commemorate next month's anniversary with even greater scientific achievements than the 2012 launch.

"The world will clearly see a series of satellites of (North) Korea soaring into the sky at the times and locations determined by the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea," the KCNA reported in an English statement.

The North's agency also said that it is putting final touches on efforts to develop a new earth observation satellite for weather forecasts, and claimed it made big strides in efforts to research into geostationary satellites that are considered more difficult than other satellites.

"The DPRK's satellite launch is also a peaceful project, pursuant to its sci-tech development plan for building an economic power and improving the people's standard of living," the North said.

"Space development for peaceful purposes is a sovereign state's legitimate right recognized by international law and the Party and the people of the DPRK are fully determined to exercise this right no matter what others may say about it," it said.

In Washington, the U.S. said any satellite launch by the North would be a violation of U.N. resolutions.

"There are multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions that require North Korea to suspend all activity related to their ballistic missile program, and establish a moratorium on missile launches, stop conducting any launches using ballistic missile technology and abandon its ballistic missile program in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

"So any satellite launch using ballistic missile technology is a clear violation" of U.N. resolutions, he said.

Pyongyang has long been accused of using long-range rocket launches as a pretext for test-firing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Experts say long-range rockets and ICBMs are basically the same with differences only in payloads.

A satellite launch, if carried out, is sure to increase tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula, spark international condemnations and pour cold water on the recent conciliatory mood created between the two Koreas, including their plans to hold reunions of families separated by the Korean War.

But a diplomatic source in Washington said that chances of the North launching a satellite around the anniversary are not high as there is not much time left to make preparations. The North has not brought a rocket into the launch site yet, he said.

"As of September 6th, it appeared that there was no rocket present at the launch tower," the source told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity, referring to the North's recently upgraded Sohae Satellite Launching Station on the country's northwest coast.

"There is an outside chance it is being hidden there under an environmental cover but odds are there is nothing there. Nor are there any other signs at the facility of launch preparations. And it's only three weeks until the anniversary," he said.

It is also unclear why the North bothered to issue the statement.

Joel Wit, editor of the website 38 North, said that Monday's statement could be just designed to "stir the pot and to continue to assert the DPRK's right to peaceful exploration of outer space."

Ken Gause, a senior North Korea analyst at CNA Corp., said the statement could be part of an attempt to gain an upper hand ahead of reconciliation talks with South Korea.

"This is to put pressure on the upcoming talks with the ROK," the expert said, referring to the peace agreement the two Koreas reached last month, where the sides agreed to end the military standoff and hold government-to-government talks to discuss improving relations. (Yonhap)