WASHINGTON - North Korea's planned launch of a long-range rocket could be delayed for 10 days or more after it reported technical delays, a U.S. academic institute said Tuesday.
Satellite photos from Monday indicate activity at the Sohae site on the northwestern coast probably related to removal of the rocket from the launch pad for repairs.
An analysis written for 38 North, the website of the U.S.-Korean Institute at John Hopkins Advanced International Studies, predicted it's likely to take until Wednesday or Thursday to remove the Unha-3 rocket and more than a week to repair it, meaning a launch is unlikely before Dec. 21-22.
North Korea has said it plans to fire a satellite into space on the three-stage rocket, defying a U.N. ban. It was scheduled for launch between Dec. 10-22 but state media reported that technical problems prompted it to extend the liftoff window until Dec. 29.
It would be North Korea's second attempt this year, and the fifth since 1998, to launch a long-range rocket that Washington says is a cover for testing technology for missiles that could be used to strike the United States. The previous four attempts all failed.
North Korea has also conducted two nuclear tests since 2006, deepening international concern over its capabilities, although it is not believed to have mastered how to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.
Past long-range rocket launches have been conducted in spring or summer, and the current frigid Korean winter could further complicate its plans. Temperatures have plunged as low as minus-1.4 F in recent days in the northwestern region near the launch site, according to the North's state media. Forecasts suggest temperatures could plunge again after Dec. 21.
"Our analysis shows the North Koreans are moving at a measured, careful pace to fix the problem with their rocket," said former U.S. State Department official, Joel Wit, 38 North's editor. "It's anyone's guess whether they succeed or not but there may be more challenges ahead, particularly if temperatures drop."
The determination to launch now is likely linked to the anniversary of the Dec. 17 death last year of longtime leader Kim Jong Il. North Korea is also celebrating the centennial this year of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, current leader Kim Jong Un's grandfather. Any launch could also be timed for Dec. 19 elections in U.S.-allied South Korea, the North's neighbor and historic rival.
North Korea divulges little about its rocket program, and without independent observers on the ground, it is virtually impossible to discern its plans with any certainty. Its state media reported Monday that scientists found a "technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module of the rocket." The statement didn't elaborate but said technicians were moving ahead with final preparations for the liftoff.
Commercial satellite images offer a partial window into the plans. 38 North collaborated with North Korea Tech, a website that focuses on technology-related developments in the secretive, socialist country. The analysis was written by Nick Hansen, a retired expert in imagery technology with more than 40 years of national intelligence experience.
An image from last Saturday suggests Pyongyang had completed key preparations, including at an instrumentation site, for a launch, he writes.
The latest image, from Monday, indicates activity probably related to the removal of the rocket from the pad, but there are no indications, such as tracks in the snow, showing that trailers required to carry the rocket stages have transported them from the pad to the missile assembly building about a half-mile away. That leads Hansen to doubt South Korean press reports that the entire rocket had been removed for repairs as of Tuesday.