North Korean space officials have moved all three stages of a long-range rocket into position for a controversial launch, vowing to push ahead with their plan in defiance of international warnings against violating a ban on missile activity.
Foreign news agencies were allowed a first-hand look at preparations under way at the coastal Sohae Satellite Station in north-western North Korea.
North Korea announced plans last month to launch a communications satellite using a three-stage rocket during mid-April celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. Engineers said the satellite will orbit the earth and send back data for weather forecasts.
The US, Japan, Britain and other nations have urged North Korea to cancel the launch, warning that firing the long-range rocket would violate UN resolutions and North Korea's promise to refrain from engaging in nuclear and missile activity. North Korea maintains the launch is meant to showcase scientific achievement.
Experts say the Unha-3 rocket slated for lift-off between April 12 and 16 could also test long-range missile technology that might be used to strike the US and other targets.
About two weeks before North Korea unveiled its rocket plan, Washington announced an agreement to provide it with much-needed food aid in exchange for a freeze on nuclear activity, including long-range missile tests.
Plans to send food aid, as well as a recently revived project to conduct joint searches for the remains of US military personnel killed during the Korean War, have now been suspended.
Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, said they were prepared to shoot down any rocket that threaten to fall in their territory — a move North Korea's foreign ministry warned would be considered a declaration of war.