SEOUL: North Korea announced on Saturday an imminent rocket launch in a move sure to draw stern US and UN condemnation and rack up tensions with South Korea which is just days from a presidential election.
It will be the North's second long-range rocket launch this year following a much-hyped but failed attempt in April
In a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the Korean Committee for Space Technology said the new bid would be carried out between December 10 and 22.
The South Korean foreign ministry condemned the planned launch as a "deeply provocative act" that defied UN resolutions and would have significant repercussions for the already isolated state.
As in April, the North said it would be a purely "peaceful, scientific" mission aimed at placing a polar-orbiting earth observation satellite into orbit.
The US and its allies insist the launches are disguised tests for an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
As such they would contravene UN resolutions triggered by Pyongyang's two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
They say the North's Unha-3 rocket is actually a three-stage variant of the Taepodong-2 ICBM that Pyongyang has been developing for years but has never tested successfully.
Saturday's announcement ended weeks of intense speculation, based on satellite image analysis, that the North was preparing a fresh launch from its Sohae satellite launch station.
South Korea had repeatedly warned in recent months that the North would seek to destabilise the situation on the Korean peninsula ahead of the South's presidential election on December 19.
"We sternly warn if the North goes ahead with the launch, it will face strong countermeasures from the international community," Saturday's foreign ministry statement said.
On Thursday the UN Security Council had warned Pyongyang that going ahead with another launch would be "extremely inadvisable".
Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul suggested it was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un assuming power following the death of his father Kim Jong-Il on December 17.
"It plans to launch the rocket as a kind of celebratory firework," Yang said.
"North Korea lost face when it failed with the April attempt and Kim Jong-Un thinks amends need to be made," he added.
The North's statement said scientists had analysed April's failure -- when the rocket exploded after take-off -- "and deepened the work of improving the reliability and precision of the satellite and carrier rocket".
The April launch put a halt to the latest international effort to engage North Korea, with the United States calling off plans to deliver badly needed food assistance.
The KCNA statement said the December mission would "fully comply" with relevant international regulations governing satellite launches.
"A safe flight path has been chosen so that parts of the carrier rocket that might fall during the launch process would not affect neighbouring countries," it said.
The announcement came just days after South Korea had been scheduled to carry out its own satellite launch in a bid to join the global space club.
The attempt was postponed at the last minute due to a technical problem and a new mission date has yet to be finalised.
US analysts such as Scott Snyder, a senior fellow of Korea studies at the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR), note that Pyongyang is particularly sensitive to what it sees as a double standard on missile and rocket testing.
"The fact that South Korea is able to pursue such launches while North Korea is prohibited from doing the same under UN Security Council Resolutions, is perceived in North Korea as exhibit number one of a discriminatory US policy," Snyder wrote recently on the CFR website.
Last month, the North claimed it already possessed rockets capable of striking the US mainland.
The threat, which analysts largely dismissed as bluster, came after South Korea announced an agreement with the United States to almost triple the range of its missiles to 800 kilometres (500 miles) to cover the whole of North Korea.