North Korea has announced it will be firing a rocket into orbit next week — moving up a launch originally planned for later this month.
Pyongyang told the U.N. International Maritime organization the launch will be held between Feb. 7 and 14, NPR's Elise Hu reports. It had previously been scheduled for sometime between Feb. 8 and 25.
The North Korea-monitoring blog 38north.org, a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, reported earlier this week that the isolated nation did appear on track for a February launch. Satellite images suggested Pyongyang was fueling the space launch vehicle on Feb. 3 and 4, 38north.org says.
North Korea describes the launch as part of its space program:a rocket carrying an earth observation satellite into orbit.
But many governments regard the launch as a concealed long-range ballistic missile test.
The launch would come just weeks after a Jan. 6 nuclear test that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions. That test — which North Korea called a "hydrogen bomb" test, a claim experts are skeptical of — raised tensions in the region and prompted widespread criticism from the international community.
"But now nearly a month later, disagreement between China and the U.S. has held up a U.N. resolution to condemn the January test," Elise says.
A rocket launch now, she says, "would be another thumb in the eye to the U.S., Japan and South Korea, the nations most vocal in their opposition to the nuclearization of the North."
At the time, NPR's Scott Neuman explained that the successful test indicated North Korea was closer to possessing a nuclear missile that could threaten large swathes of the world, but didn't mean Pyongyang was all the way there:
"North Korea's successful rocket launch may conjure up visions of nuclear missiles in the hands of one of the planet's least predictable regimes. But building a satellite launch vehicle doesn't directly translate into an ability to rain warheads on distant enemies.
"Pyongyang still faces major obstacles before it can claim to possess reliable, nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting its Asian neighborhood and much of the Pacific basin, including Alaska. ... While North Korea might have the reach, it still faces the problem of perfecting a nuclear warhead — a much larger obstacle than simply exploding a nuclear device."
But while the engineering challenges are substantial, several experts told NPR it was a mistake to underestimate the potential threat posed by North Korean technology.
"Relying on them to fail is not a great plan," defense expert Thomas Donnelly told NPR in in 2012. "They are trodding a path that many nations have trod before."