PYONGYANG, North Korea—Fighter jets roared through the skies over downtown Pyongyang on Thursday as the world watched to see whether North Korea would defy international warnings and launch a long-range rocket over the Yellow Sea.
The five-day window for the launch of a rocket mounted with an observation satellite opened Thursday as North Koreans woke to details about developments at a Workers’ Party conference where leader Kim Jong Un ascended to top posts and brought with him a new generation of officials.
His father, Kim Jong Il, was granted the posthumous title of “eternal general secretary” at the special one-day party conference Wednesday. The immortalization of the late leader provided a glimpse into how North Korea will handle the nation’s second hereditary succession and indicates he will be honored much in the same way his father, Kim Il Sung, was made “eternal president” following his 1994 death.
Footage on state TV on Thursday showed Kim Jong Un seated at the front of the conference with white statues of his grandfather and a new statue of his father in his trademark khaki work ensemble, one arm on his hip. On Mansu Hill, once the domain of a huge bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, a second covered statue awaits its unveiling.
There was no word Thursday morning on the timing of the controversial rocket launch, which the North has said will take place sometime between Thursday and Monday. In 2009, a similar launch from an east coast site took place on the second day of a five-day window.
The United States, Japan, Britain and others say the launch would constitute a provocation and would violate UN Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs.
Experts say the Unha-3 carrier is similar to the type of rocket that could be used to fire a missile mounted with a nuclear warhead to strike the US or other targets.
The launch and Kim’s formal ascension to top posts comes during a week of events leading up to celebrations Sunday marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, late President Kim Il Sung.
The centennial is a major milestone in the nation Kim founded in 1948, and the streets of the capital, Pyongyang, were awash with new posters, banners and the national flag. The streets were busy with women clad in traditional Korean dresses and children waving red flags.
The Taedong River flyover of fighter jets was practice for a military parade, officials said. North Korea’s army celebrates its 80th anniversary later this month.
The expected satellite launch is one of the marquee events this week. North Korean space officials call the launch of the Unha-3 rocket, mounted with an Earth observation satellite, a “gift” to Kim Il Sung. They said Wednesday that the final step of injecting fuel into the three-stage rocket was under way in the coastal hamlet of Tongchang-ri.
“We are injecting fuel as we speak,” Paek Chang Ho, chief of the space committee’s General Command Center, told reporters given a chance Wednesday to visit the control center outside Pyongyang.
He said the rocket was ready for liftoff as soon as engineers are given the green light. North Korea has informed international aviation, maritime and telecommunications authorities that the launch will take place between Thursday and Monday.
Because liquid rocket fuel is highly volatile and corrosive, its injection into the rocket is usually one of the final steps in the pre-launch process, experts say. But the weather, and particularly the wind, could force delays.
An analysis of recent satellite images shows preparations appear compete, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said.
Images taken by a commercial satellite earlier in the week revealed increased activity at an instrumentation site that would track and collect data from the rocket to be passed to the launch control center.
A mobile radar tracking antenna also was removed from its stowed position, indicating it has been checked out for operations. The analysis for the institute’s website, 38 North, also says a mobile optical system appears to have been set up to track the rocket’s flight.
The planned launch was a focus of discussions among foreign ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialized democracies.
“I think we all share a strong interest in stability on the Korean peninsula, and we will be discussing how best to achieve that as well,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told her colleagues Wednesday in Washington.
Paek denied Wednesday that the launch was anything but a peaceful civilian bid to send a satellite into space. He said the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite is designed to send back images and data that will be used for weather forecasts and agricultural surveys.
“Some parties insist our peaceful space program is a missile test,” he told foreign reporters given an exclusive tour of the nation’s main satellite command center. “We don’t really care what the outside world thinks. This launch is critical to developing our space program and improving our economy.”
This satellite launch would be the country’s third attempt since 1998. Two previous rockets, also named Unha, were mounted with experimental communications satellites and sent from the east coast.
“The launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite is the pride of our nation and of our people,” Rim Kwang Myong, a mathematics major at Kim Il Sung University, told The Associated Press.
Science and technology also are said to be Kim Jong Un’s areas of expertise, and Kim is credited with giving guidance during the last launch in 2009.
Kim is considered supreme commander of the armed forces, and is expected to gain other new titles formalizing his position as “supreme leader” of North Korea’s people and party, possibly including his father’s title of chairman of the National Defense Commission.
On Wednesday, he was made first secretary of the Workers’ Party, a newly created post. He also succeeded his late father as chairman of the Central Military Commission, which formulates the party’s military policies, and was elevated to standing member of the powerful Political Bureau, a high-level decision-making body.
Party delegates also elected a new generation of younger officials to key posts, including Choe Ryong Hae, a new vice marshal who will join Kim on the powerful Presidium of the Central Committee’s Political Bureau.
Ken Gause, a North Korea specialist at CNA, a US-based research organization, said younger members also were promoted at the last party conference in September 2010, when Kim Jong Un was made vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.
“I expect in the near future, as Kim Jong Un begins to consolidate his power, we will see more,” he said in an email interview.
Six other people were named to the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, including Jang Song Thaek, who is married to Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui.