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North Korea opens 5-day launch window for rocket

North Korea's five-day window to launch a rocket opened Thursday with Asian countries on alert, as Washington told G8 world powers that the communist state was in flagrant violation of a UN ban.

The communist state has said it will launch the rocket between Thursday and Monday, most likely between 2200 GMT and 0300 GMT, to mark Sunday's centenary of the birth of its founding leader Kim Il-Sung.

His grandson Kim Jong-Un is now in charge of the poor but nuclear-armed country, where food shortages remain endemic, and has cemented his rule with a series of top titles including now chairman of the Central Military Commission.

North Korea says the rocket will place a satellite in orbit for peaceful research purposes, promoting the Kim dynasty's goal for the isolated country to attain the rank of a "powerful and prosperous state" this year.

But Western critics see the launch as a thinly veiled ballistic missile test, banned by United Nations resolutions. The United States has suspended a deal agreed just in February to give food aid for North Korea.

The North says it has installed the satellite payload and fuelled the 30-metre (100-foot) rocket, but officials in South Korea and Japan said there was no sign that liftoff was about to happen on Thursday morning.

"So we believe there is very little possibility of the rocket being launched today, as it said earlier the launch would take place between 7:00 am and noon," a South Korean government official told Yonhap news agency.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said his country was on full alert, while urging North Korea to show "self-restraint until the last minute".

"But we want to be fully prepared for any possible contingency," Noda said, after ordering the deployment of anti-missile batteries on land and at sea to shoot down the rocket if it threatens Japanese territory.

Like Japan, the Philippines ordered flights to divert to avoid being in the Pacific area where debris from the rocket might fall. The UN's maritime agency has also warned shipping to be on alert.

But noon in North Korea came and went with no sign of the launch, as the country prepared mass festivities to mark the anniversary on Sunday with tens of thousands expected to appear in Pyongyang's vast Kim Il-Sung Square.

North Korea says it has invited between 150 and 200 foreign journalists to watch the launch and the commemorations, which is believed to be the largest number of overseas media ever invited to the reclusive state.

A large television screen has been installed at a specially inaugurated international press centre in Pyongyang, apparently to relay live footage of the rocket blasting off.

But there was no sign that a takeoff was imminent, and weather websites showed that conditions were cloudy over the launch site in northwest North Korea's Cholsan peninsula.

At the start of a Group of Eight meeting in Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the powerful club of industrialised nations was united in wanting stability on the divided Korean peninsula.

"North Korea is readying a long-range ballistic missile launch over the East China Sea. It comes just weeks after North Korea agreed to a moratorium on missile testing," Clinton said, referring to February's food aid deal.

"It violates multiple UN Security Council resolutions," she told fellow G8 foreign ministers.
The G8 includes the United States, Russia and Japan, which comprise half of the nations involved in moribund talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programme.

North Korea is adamant its rocket launch does not amount to a banned intercontinental missile test and says it has every right to send the satellite up, as it promotes the untested leadership of Kim Jong-Un who is in his late 20s.

He was elected chairman of the Central Military Commission -- which controls the 1.2-million-strong military -- at a conference of the ruling communist party on Wednesday, the North's official news agency said overnight.

The announcement came after the Workers' Party of Korea declared Jong-Un its "first secretary", an apparently new title.

His father Kim Jong-Il, who died in December, was declared "eternal" general secretary of the party, the post he had held in his lifetime.

"This means that the North has completed the transfer of party power from the late leader to Kim Jong-Un," professor Yang Moo-Jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies said, noting the dynastic symbolism ahead of Sunday.

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