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Anger, sanctions threats greet North Korea rocket launch plans

[SEOUL] South Korea and Japan on Wednesday echoed US warnings that a harsh price would be exacted from North Korea if it went ahead with a planned rocket launch just weeks after conducting its fourth nuclear test.

[SEOUL] South Korea and Japan on Wednesday echoed US warnings that a harsh price would be exacted from North Korea if it went ahead with a planned rocket launch just weeks after conducting its fourth nuclear test.

Urging Pyongyang to drop its plans for a launch as early as next week, the government in Seoul said the move would be a serious breach of UN resolutions and a "direct challenge" to the international community.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned what he called a "serious provocation" that represented a clear violation of Pyongyang's international obligations.

The warnings came a day after the North announced a Feb 8-25 window for the launch, ostensibly aimed at putting an earth observation satellite into orbit.

UN resolutions forbid the North from any use of ballistic missile technology, and Tuesday's announcement saw Pyongyang doubling down against an international community already struggling to come up with a united response to last month's nuclear test.

The United States, which has been spearheading a diplomatic drive for harsher, more effective sanctions on Pyongyang, was quick to condemn the launch plan.

Daniel Russel, the assistant US Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific affairs slammed what he called "yet another egregious violation" of UN resolutions.

"This argues even more strongly for action by the UN Security Council and the international community to impose... tough additional sanctions," Mr Russel said.

"North Korea is defying the UN Security Council, it's defying its... neighbour China, it's defying the international community," he added.

In formal notifications sent to three UN agencies, including the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), North Korea said the launch would take place in the morning with a daily window of between 7:00am-midday Pyongyang time (2230-0330 GMT).

The dates suggest a launch around the time of the birthday on Feb 16 of late leader Kim Jong-Il, father of current leader Kim Jong-Un.

The South Korean government statement urged Pyongyang to call off the launch immediately or pay a "heavy price" for threatening regional peace and stability.

North Korea successfully placed a satellite in orbit on a three-stage Unha-3 rocket in December 2012.

A fresh launch poses a dilemma for the international community, which has already spent the past month in a frenzy of diplomatic activity, seeking a consensus on how to respond to last month's nuclear test.

North Korea's chief diplomatic ally, China, has been resisting the US push for tougher sanctions, but a rocket launch would bolster calls for Beijing to bring its maverick neighbour into line.

China's top envoy on the North Korean nuclear issue, Wu Dawei, arrived in Pyongyang for talks on Tuesday, just hours before the rocket launch notification was issued.

While its patience has been stretched to the limit by Pyongyang's refusal to curb its nuclear ambitions, China's overriding concern is a collapse of Kim Jong-Un's regime and the possibility of a US-allied unified Korea on its border.

US Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing last week and said they had agreed to mount an "accelerated effort" to resolve their differences over a UN resolution condemning the January nuclear test.

But Mr Kerry acknowledged that the two diplomats had not agreed on the "parameters of exactly what (a resolution) would do or say".

Since early 2013, North Korea has been upgrading its Sohae satellite launch complex to handle larger, longer-range rockets with heavier payloads, but most experts say Pyongyang is still years from obtaining a credible inter-continental ballistic missile capability.

"North Korea is still a long way off from being able to strike the US mainland," Siegfried Hecker, one of the foremost authorities on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme, said in a recent interview.

"It has only had one successful space launch. It needs a lot more, but it has made a large effort in that direction," Mr Hecker said.

The flight plan coordinates sent to the IMO were similar to the December 2012 launch - suggesting an Unha-3 would again be the selected carrier.

The separated first stage was predicted to fall in the Yellow Sea around 200 kilometres off the west coast of South Korea, followed by a second stage splashdown in the Philippine Sea.

Japan has said its military will shoot down any rocket that strays into its air space.