Reports that North Korea may test launch a long-range missile has raised eyebrows among regional and Western powers that worry the new, young leader of the reclusive dictatorship wants to flex his military muscle.
This would be the first time North Korea has launched multiple missiles in the same year, following a failed test this April in which a Taepo Dong-2 missile crashed into the Yellow Sea moments after launch. Satellite images from private security company DigitalGlobal—a trusted source of information for the U.S. government —show construction activity at North Korea's Sohae satellite launching station.
The North Korean military, at the behest of new leader Kim Jong Un, has already tested at least one large rocket engine at the Sohae site between April and September, reports a U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS blog. A comparison of satellite images during that time show evidence of engine tests, such as stained ground and burned vegetation, and workers have moved fuel tanks.
The most recent construction activity at a launch pad there indicates Pyongyang may attempt to fire a long-range missile test between now and January.
The Pentagon says it is aware of the DigitalGlobe imagery, but declined to comment on intelligence matters.
"We continue to call on [North Korea] to comply fully with its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874, which ... require Pyongyang to suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner and re-establish its moratorium on missile launching," says spokesman Marine Capt. Bradlee Avots.
Kim Jong Un, believed to be 29, has sought to secure power since ascending to North Korea's top position last December, following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. The U.S. worries he might attempt a launch to coincide with significant upcoming dates, such as the anniversary of his father's death, his own birthday in early January, or the South Korean presidential election in mid-December.
Pyongyang's attempts to launch a rocket into orbit also raise major concerns worldwide since the technology to put an object into orbit can be used to build ballistic missiles.
These global concerns are not shared among all residents of neighboring South Korea.
"I don't worry about this situation," says S.G. Kim, a Seoul resident contacted by U.S. News via E-mail. "As a Korean citizen, I have experienced this kind of problem as long as I live."
South Korean people are tired of this issue, Kim says, and rely on international intervention to solve disputes, which keeps North and South Korea separated. Kim hopes for more active intervention that might eventually reunite the Korean peninsula.
"These events never seem to have a great impact on daily life in Seoul," says Josh Foreman, an editor for Groove Korea, an English-language magazine based in the South Korean capital. "People go about their business, largely ignoring whatever the North is doing."
"I'm sure some South Koreans are outraged, but there are very few signs in daily life that anything is happening," he said by E-mail.
Seoul resident Soo Ahn says local media portrays the Northern Korean move as an attempt to undermine the presidential election in Seoul and Barack Obama's January inauguration. She also points to upcoming government summits that North Korea may try to disrupt, such as upcoming ministry-level meetings between Seoul and Beijing, and South Korea's plans to test its own satellite rocket, Naro-ho.
South Korea scrapped launch plans on Thursday, citing technical problems.
"This is not a war," says SeongJoon Cho, a Seoul-based editorial photographer, in an E-mail to U.S. News. North Korea's threats are entirely for their own purposes, he says, for support and money from allies. "We don't feel we need help from [the] international community."