North Korea announced Saturday that it would attempt to launch a long-range rocket in mid-December, a defiant move just eight months after a failed April bid was widely condemned as a violation of a U.N. ban against developing its nuclear and missile programs.
The launch, set for Dec. 10 to 22, is likely to heighten already strained tensions with Washington and Seoul as the United States prepares for Barack Obama's second term as U.S. president and South Korea holds its own presidential election on Dec. 19.
This would be North Korea's second launch attempt under leader Kim Jong Un, who took power following his father Kim Jong Il's death nearly a year ago. The announcement by North Korea's space agency followed speculation overseas about stepped-up activity at North Korea's west coast launch pad captured in satellite imagery.
A spokesman for North Korea's Korean Committee for Space Technology said scientists have "analyzed the mistakes" made in the failed April launch and improved the precision of its Unha rocket and Kwangmyongsong satellite, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
KCNA said the launch was a request of late leader Kim Jong Il, whose Dec. 17, 2011, death North Koreans are expected to mark with some fanfare. The space agency said the rocket would be mounted with a polar-orbiting Earth observation satellite, and maintained its right to develop a peaceful space program.
Washington considers North Korea's rocket launches to be veiled covers for tests of technology for long-range missiles designed to strike the United States, and such tests are banned by the United Nations.
North Korea has capable short- and medium-range missiles, but long-range launches in 1998, 2006, 2009 and in April of this year ended in failure. North Korea is not known to have succeeded in mounting an atomic bomb on a missile but is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least half a dozen bombs, according to U.S. experts, and in 2010 revealed a uranium enrichment program that could provide a second source of material for nuclear weapons.
Six-nation negotiations on dismantling North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for aid fell apart in early 2009.
In Seoul, South Korean officials have accused North Korea of trying to influence its presidential election with what they consider provocations meant to put pressure on voters and on the United States as the North seeks concessions. Conservative Park Geun-hye, the daughter of late President Park Chung-hee, is facing liberal Moon Jae-in in the South Korean presidential vote. Polls show the candidates in a close race.
North Korea under its young leader has pledged to bolster its nuclear arsenal unless Washington scraps what the North calls a "hostile" policy. North Korea maintains that it is building bombs to defend itself against what it sees as a U.S. nuclear threat in the region.
This year is the centennial of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un. According to North Korean propaganda, 2012 is meant to put the North on a path toward a "strong, prosperous and great nation."
In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he would co-ordinate with the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia in strongly urging the North to refrain from the rocket launch. Kyodo News agency said Japan also postponed high-level talks with North Korea scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.
The Korean Peninsula remains in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Washington stations nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea as a buttress against any North Korean aggression. Tens of thousands more are in nearby Japan.