North Korea announced of launching an earth observation satellite aboard a long-range rocket next month, a move expected to spark international condemnation because the launch is seen as little different from a missile test.
The announcement came just weeks after North Korea agreed to temporarily put a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests and freeze its uranium-enrichment facilities in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid from the United States.
South Korea expressed "serious concern" over the North's plan, noting the launch would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution.
North Korea said Unha-3 rocket carrying Kwangmyongsong-3 will blast off from its satellite launching station in North Pyongan Province between April 12 and 16, the Korean Committee for Space Technology said in Pyongyang.
The launch of a satellite built by indigenous technology is designed "to mark the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il-sung," the country's founder and the late grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un, the committee said.
The launch date is set around the late founder's April 15 birthday, one of the most important holidays in the isolated country. The North, one of the poorest countries in the world, has vowed to usher in a prosperous and powerful nation by the milestone anniversary.
The committee said it has chosen a safe flight orbit to ensure carrier rocket debris to be generated during the flight would not have any impact on neighboring countries.
North Korea "will strictly abide by relevant international regulations and usage concerning the launch of scientific and technological satellites for peaceful purposes and ensure maximum transparency," the North's committee said in an English-language statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
The committee claimed that the launch will greatly encourage North Koreans "in the building of a thriving nation and will offer an important occasion of putting the country's technology of space use for peaceful purposes on a higher stage."
Meanwhile, South Korea called on North Korea to "immediately stop such a provocative act and abide by its international obligations."
The launch "will become a grave provocative act against peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia," the foreign ministy said in a statement.
The North's move could be aimed at boosting its negotiating power with the U.S. after their recent nuclear deal, said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul.
"The North could employ brinkmanship, as it wants to take the lead in future negotiations with the U.S.," Kim said.
The communist country has a track record of making commitments in return for economic concessions and then abandoning talks, reneging on its commitments and staging provocations.
Kim said the North could argue that its satellite launch would not be in violation of its moratorium on missile tests, a position that is expected to be rejected by the U.S.
"The borderline is ambiguous," Kim said, referring to technological similarity between a rocket launch and a long-range missile test.
Baek Seung-joo, a senior analyst at the state-run Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, said a rocket can carry either a satellite or a warhead and the technology in launching the satellite could be diverted for military purposes.
In 2009, the North claimed it successfully put a satellite into orbit as part of a peaceful space program. However, South Korea and the United States said at the time that the launch was meant to test North Korea's ballistic missile technology and that no object entered orbit.
The launch drew U.N. condemnation, prompting North Korea to quit the six-nation talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs. The North conducted a second nuclear test in May 2009, drawing tightened U.N. sanctions.
The recent nuclear deal between Pyongyang and Washington raised hopes that the disarmament talks could be resumed. The talks also involve South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
Still, the nuclear accord could unravel if the U.S. views the North's upcoming launch as a disguised long-range missile, said Baek.
The U.S. did not make any immediate comment on the North's announcement.
The upcoming liftoff comes as the North is set to hold a key political conference. The KCNA reported in February that the Workers' Party conference in mid-April is designed "to glorify the sacred revolutionary life and feats" of its late leader Kim Jong-il and "rallied close" around his son and successor, Kim Jong-un.
Let find out how people all over the world will react.