WASHINGTON — The U.S. and its allies stepped up pressure on North Korea on Thursday to scrap its planned launch of a long-range rocket, with President Obama agreeing with the South Korean president to respond sternly if Pyongyang proceeds.
U.S. Defense Department officials said the U.S. was not planning to shoot the rocket down but that the U.S. would increase diplomatic pressure on North Korea if it goes ahead, as expected. The government in Pyongyang would find it more difficult to get what it wants from the outside world, including diplomatic recognition, trade and investment, and security guarantees, the officials said.
"They need things," one official said.
Fueling of the rocket, which North Korea says will carry a satellite into space, has begun, and trailers and vehicles with propellant have been observed at the site, U.S. officials said.
International concern about the imminent launch is based on a belief that it is intended to serve as an intercontinental ballistic missile test by the nuclear-armed nation. Western nations say the launch would be illegal under U.N. resolutions restricting North Korea's missile programs.
But Pyongyang says it has a right to launch a satellite under international space treaties. North Korea has been impervious to diplomatic pressure in the past. Analysts say it appears determined to go ahead this time despite the international pressure, betting that no new sanctions will be imposed.
North Korea heightened its rhetoric Thursday, saying it would retaliate against any attempts to destroy its rocket and also threatening to shoot down U.S. surveillance aircraft. But U.S. officials did not take the threats seriously.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spoke to his counterparts in Japan and South Korea late Wednesday, assuring them that the U.S. would live up to its commitments to defend its allies.
North Korea has said it will use the launch solely to put a satellite into orbit. And officials in Washington said they did not believe the rocket posed a direct danger to the U.S.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates had made it clear that if there was a direct threat from the launch, the military has the capabilities to destroy the rocket.
The U.S. has interceptor rockets and tracking radar in Alaska and California designed to take out ballistic missiles in mid-course. The U.S. could also use ship-based missiles to destroy the North Korean rocket soon after it was launched.
Defense officials said the legality of shooting down a rocket carrying a satellite was questionable, even if the launch was illegal under United Nations resolutions.
Officials expect the launch to occur as early as Saturday, although the window during which North Korea has said the rocket would be fired extends through Wednesday.
U.S. spy agencies will be monitoring the launch for information on North Korea's procedures as well as the performance and range of its Taepodong 2 rocket.
At the G-20 economic summit in London, Obama met with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Thursday and discussed North Korea at length, according to a senior administration official.
According to a White House statement, the men promised to "peacefully and verifiably" eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons and related programs.
U.S. officials say they will return to the U.N. Security Council to weigh stronger sanctions against Pyongyang if it launches the Taepodong 2.
Times staff writers Greg Miller and Paul Richter in Washington and John M. Glionna in Seoul and Tribune correspondent Christi Parsons in London contributed to this report.