PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea was poised Thursday to send a rocket into space as the nation’s young leader ascended to new top political posts strengthening his hold on power.
There was no word early Thursday morning on the timing of the launch, which the North has said will take place sometime between Thursday and Monday. The launch, which the North says is for peaceful purposes, has raised international concern.
The nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un, was named first secretary of the ruling 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, the party’s highest-level decision-making body.
Late longtime leader Kim Jong Il, meanwhile, was granted the posthumous title of “eternal general secretary” at the special one-day party conference Wednesday.
Kim Jong Un’s formal ascension to top party posts, nearly four months after his father’s death, 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 Il Sung founded in 1948, and the streets of the capital, Pyongyang, were awash with new posters, banners and the national flag. Outside the city’s war museum and the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium, women in traditional Korean dress gathered in clusters, practicing for this week’s events.
North Korea has thrown open its doors to dozens of journalists from around the world to report on the events this week designed not only to honor Kim Il Sung but also to demonstrate unity as Kim Jong Un consolidates power.
One of the marquee events is a satellite launch poised to take place as early as Thursday that has raised international concern.
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.
“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.
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,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told her colleagues Wednesday in Washington.
A live feed Wednesday at the General Command Center in the outskirts of Pyongyang showed the rocket on the launch pad covered with a tarp to protect the satellite from the wind.
Paek Chang Ho, chief of the command center, 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 would take place between Thursday and Monday.
“We are injecting fuel as we speak,” Paek told reporters from a viewing platform in front of a large screen showing the live feed. Sixteen scientists in white lab coats worked at computers below him.
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.
The United States, Japan, Britain and others say the launch would constitute a provocation and would violate U.N. 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 U.S. or other targets.
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.”
Clinton said earlier in the week that the launch would be a direct threat to regional security and that the U.S. would pursue “appropriate action” at the Security Council if North Korea goes ahead with it.
This 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.
North Korean officials say the 2009 satellite reached orbit, but the U.S. and other outside observers say they have seen no evidence that it did.
The new titles Kim Jong Un has received are among a slate of political appointments and promotions expected this week. He was unveiled as father Kim Jong Il’s choice as successor at a similar party conference in September 2010.
Kim Jong Un already has been declared 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.
Delegates also approved a reshuffle of party leadership, electing a new generation of officials to key posts.
Party member Choe Ryong Hae emerged as a rising figure. He was named to the powerful Presidium of the Central Committee’s Political Bureau, joining Kim Jong Un and three high-ranking officials serving on the executive body.
Choe, who is in his early 60sh and recently was promoted to vice marshal, also was named a vice chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, KCNA said.
Six others 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.
The immortalization of Kim Jong Il has provided a glimpse into how North Korea will treat the nation’s second hereditary succession. After Kim Il Sung died in 1994, he was declared the country’s “eternal president,” and Kim Jong Il ruled as chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Kim Jong Un could be promoted to chairman of the National Defense Commission, said Peter Beck, a Korea specialist at the Asia Foundation.
However, even after his new titles are revealed, much about North Korea’s leadership may remain murky, analysts said.
“North Korea is less monolithic than it looks from the outside, and, particularly as a new top leadership establishes itself in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death, there will be as many questions raised as answers provided by the political choreography,” said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul who has made several trips to North Korea in recent years.