SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea vowed Monday to press ahead with test-firing what neighboring governments believe is a long-range missile, but it sought to portray the launch as part of a space program amid growing pressure to drop the plan.
Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency made the claim on the 67th birthday of leader Kim Jong Il and as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was en route to Asia for meetings where the North's missile and nuclear programs are expected to be a focus.
KCNA claimed the North has the right to "space development" — a term the country has used in the past to disguise a missile test as a satellite launch. It also accused the United States and other countries of trying to block the country's "peaceful scientific research" by linking it to a missile test.
"One will come to know later what will be launched" from North Korea, KCNA said, claiming that "hostile forces spread the rumor about" the country's "preparations for launching a long-distance missile."
When North Korea test-fired a long-range missile in 1998, it claimed to have put a satellite into orbit.
"It means they're going to fire a missile as a satellite launch," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. He called the North's space-program claim a "preventive" measure because a missile launch could result in punitive steps from the international community.
The KCNA report comes amid growing international pressure on Pyongyang to back out of apparent plans to carry out a test launch of a missile believed capable of reaching U.S. territory. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have repeatedly urged the North not to fire a missile. Clinton, before departing for Asia, also urged Pyongyang not to take any provocative actions.
Clinton was due to arrive in Japan later Monday on the first leg of her trip that also includes stops in South Korea, China and Indonesia.
On Sunday, Clinton said North Korea needs to live up to commitments to dismantle its nuclear programs, saying Washington is willing to normalize ties with it in return for nuclear disarmament.
"The North Koreans have already agreed to dismantling," she said. "We expect them to fulfill the obligations that they entered into."
Pyongyang has reportedly moved a long-range Taepodong-2 missile — its most advanced — to a launch site on the country's northeastern coast. South Korean media have said a launch could come late this month.
On Monday, Seoul's mass-circulation JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said that the North had moved all necessary equipment to fire a missile to the Musudan-ni site on its northeastern coast and that a launch could be ready earlier than expected. The report cited unnamed government officials.
Analysts say North Korea's saber rattling appears to be an attempt to draw President Barack Obama's attention, to start negotiations where it can extract concessions.
North Korea made a point Monday of denying such a view, saying it "has no need to draw anyone's attention."
North Korea has also been escalating tensions with the South, declaring all peace pacts with Seoul dead in anger over the hard-line stance that pro-U.S., conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has taken toward it.
South Korean media have speculated that Pyongyang may provoke an armed clash near their disputed sea border — the scene of two deadly skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.
Kim's birthday on Monday comes months after the autocratic leader apparently suffered a stroke in August. His condition appears to have improved, and he met with a Chinese envoy last month — his first known meeting with a foreign dignitary since August. Pyongyang has denied Kim was ever ill.
His health is a focus of intense media attention because he has not anointed any of his three known sons as an heir. Kim's birthday is one of the North's biggest national holidays, along with that of his late father and national founder Kim Il Sung who died in 1994. An intense cult of personality flourishes around the autocratic leader.