SKorea set to launch rocket

SEOUL: South Korean scientists were making final checks Wednesday before sending the country's first rocket into space — a liftoff that threatens to raise the ire of rival North Korea.

The launch comes four months after the North tested its own rocket in defiance of the United Nations. North Korea said it will keep a close eye on the international response to Seoul's rocket launch.

North Korea also put its army on "special alert" as the U.S. and South Korea carried out joint military exercises in the South.

Washington and Seoul say the annual computer-simulated war games, which began Monday, are purely defensive. But North Korea's Foreign Ministry warned they were "aggravating" tensions on the Korean peninsula.

"Lurking behind them is a dangerous scheme for aggression to mount a pre-emptive nuclear attack," the ministry said in a statement carried by Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency.

But in a promising sign, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il sent condolences to the family of ex-President Kim Dae-jung, who died Tuesday at age 85 after a lifetime of fighting for democracy and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.

North Korean officials also conveyed their wish to send a delegation to pay their respects to Kim, lawmaker Park Jie-won, a former Kim Dae-jung aide, said Wednesday.

Relations between the two Koreas — which remain technically at war — have been tense since President Lee Myung-bak took office in February 2008, abandoning Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy" of encouraging reconciliation with aid.

But there have been signs of warming ties in the past week, with North Korea releasing a South Korean citizen from its custody and announcing it will allow some joint projects to resume.

That change followed on the heels of former President Bill Clinton's trip to Pyongyang to bring back two American journalists sentenced to hard labor for entering the country illegally. Clinton met with Kim Jong Il during that brief trip.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the trip does not change the Obama administration's position on North Korea, which is under pressure from the U.S. and its allies to end its nuclear weapons program.

"Our policy remains the same. Our policy is consistent," she said Tuesday.

Another U.S. envoy, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, was to meet Wednesday in Santa Fe with two North Korean diplomats, Kim Myong Gil and Paek Jong Ho, at the North Koreans' request, his office said late Tuesday.

The governor's office said Richardson would not be representing President Barack Obama's administration in speaking to the officials from North Korea's U.N. mission.

Richardson was U.N. ambassador in Bill Clinton's administration, and has served as a roving diplomatic troubleshooter in North Korea, Sudan, Cuba and Iraq. In the 1990s, Richardson, then a congressman, went to North Korea twice to secure the release of detained Americans.

The South's first rocket, the Naro, built with Russian help, was set for liftoff from Oenaro Island, about 290 miles (465 kilometers) south of Seoul.

It is South Korea's first launch of a rocket from its own territory. Since 1992, it has launched 11 satellites, all on foreign-made rockets sent from overseas sites.

South Korean officials hope the rocket will boost the country's aim to become a regional space power, along with China, Japan and India.

The two-stage rocket, officially named KSLV-I, will carry a domestically built satellite aimed at observing the atmosphere and ocean, Science Ministry official Yeom Ki-su said. The launch had been set for July 30 but was delayed due to technical glitches.

North Korea's Foreign Ministry said last week that it will "closely watch" how the U.S. and other neighboring countries respond to the South's launch.

In April, the North beat the South in the space game by launching a multistage rocket it said was mounted with a satellite. The U.S., Japan and other nations condemned the launch as a test of ballistic missile technology since the same rocket can be mounted with nuclear armaments.

The U.N. Security Council slapped Pyongyang with sanctions, calling the launch a violation of resolutions banning it from conducting missile-related activity.

The two launches cannot be compared since South Korea's launch is for peaceful purposes and will be conducted transparently, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young.

"The South Koreans have developed their program in a very open and transparent way. And in keeping with the international agreements that they have signed on to, this is in stark contrast to the example set by North Korea, which has not abided by its international agreements," U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in Washington on Tuesday.