SEOUL, South Korea – High winds may have forced North Korea to delay its rocket launch, despite the country's insistence Saturday that preparations were complete for the liftoff that many suspect is intended to test the country's long-range missile capabilities.
Regional powers deployed warships and trained their satellites on the communist country to monitor what they suspect will be a test for a missile capable of reaching Alaska.
Preparations for sending "an experimental communications satellite" into space were complete, North Korea's state-run media said in a dispatch Saturday morning, adding, "The satellite will be launched soon."
However, the day's stated 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. timeframe passed without any sign of a launch. North Korea had announced last month the launch would take place sometime between April 4 and 8 during those hours.
Winds reported as "relatively strong" around the northeastern North Korean launch pad in Musudan-ri may have kept the North from launching the rocket Saturday, analyst Paik Hak-soon of the private Sejong Institute think tank said.
"North Korea cannot afford a technical failure," he said. "North Korea wouldn't fire the rocket if there's even a minor concern about the weather."
Japan again urged North Korea to refrain from a launch that Washington, Seoul and Tokyo suspect is a guise for testing the regime's long-range missile technology — a worrying development because North Korea has acknowledged it has nuclear weapons and has repeatedly broken promises to shelve its nuclear program or halt rocket tests.
Click to view photos | Satellite image of the launch area
FAST FACTS: A Glance at North Korea's Missile Arsenal.
"The launch will damage peace and stability in Asia. We strongly urge North Korea to refrain from it," chief Japanese government spokesman Takeo Kawamura said Saturday, adding that it would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution barring the country from ballistic missile activity.
President Barack Obama said Friday that a launch would be "provocative" and prompt the U.S. to "take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that it can't threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity."
Chinese President Hu Jintao, meeting Friday with South Korea's Lee Myung-bak, agreed the launch would "negatively affect peace and stability in Northeast Asia and there should be a discussion among related countries" after it takes place, Lee's office said.
"Respective nations made efforts to urge North Korea to refrain from the launch. But if North Korea really plans to launch, it is very regrettable," Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone told reporters Saturday.
U.N. Security Council diplomats said a draft resolution was circulating that could reaffirm and tighten enforcement of the demands and sanctions of a resolution passed in October 2006 after a North Korean nuclear test.
Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. envoy on North Korea, promised consequences if the launch goes ahead but a strong united response might be elusive since China and Russia hold veto power in the council and could argue that nonmilitary space missions are exempt.
Taking no chances, Japan deployed warships and Patriot missile interceptors off its northern coast to shoot down any wayward rocket parts that the North has said might fall over the area, saying it is only protecting its territory and has no intention of trying to shoot down the rocket itself.
North Korea threatened retaliation against any interception of the satellite, telling Japan such a move would mean "war," and said American U-2 spy planes would be shot down if they broach its airspace.
In a sign of jitters in Japan, public broadcaster NHK quoted the government as saying North Korea appeared to have launched a rocket, then quickly retracted the story.
Kawamura said information provided by the Defense Ministry was incorrect. "We put out the wrong information, and we apologize to the public for causing worries," he told reporters.
Observation cameras and radars that North Korea installed near the launch pad were not activated Saturday, the Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed South Korean government official as saying. South Korea's Defense Ministry said it was trying to confirm the report.
With tensions rising in the region, Bosworth said he was prepared to go to North Korea after the "dust from the missiles settles" in order to restart six-nation negotiations aimed at getting the North to abandon its nuclear program.
North Korea also is holding two American journalists accused of crossing into the country illegally from China and engaging in "hostile acts." Euna Lee and Laura Ling, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture, were detained last month.
A South Korean who works at a joint economic zone in the northern border town of Kaesong also remained in North Korean custody Saturday for allegedly denouncing the North's political system and inciting female North Korean employees to flee the communist country.
The South Korean government urged citizens working at joint economic zones and in Pyongyang to return home because of the "grave" tensions on the peninsula. More than 600 South Koreans left North Korea on Saturday, the Unification Ministry said in Seoul.