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North Korean Satellite Readies For Launch Amid Reports Of New Nuke Test

A rocket that North Korea says is slated to put the country's first-ever satellite into orbit has been moved to a launchpad for possible blastoff as early as this week, amid reports that the secretive regime is also planning a fresh nuclear test.

The Unha-3 rocket is sitting astride a gantry at the Sohae Satellite Station at Tongchang-ri, along the country's northwest coast, according to the BBC. Pyongyang says it could launch sometime between April 12-16.

Over the weekend, North Korean officials took journalists on a tour of Sohae. The North says its satellite launch in no way doubles as a ballistic missile test, but the two capabilities are notoriously difficult to parse.

Doualy Xaykaothao, reporting from Seoul, South Korea, for NPR, says the general manager of Sohae reassured visiting journalists at the site that "no matter what others say, we are doing this for peaceful purposes."

Meanwhile, South Korean officials say images taken from space show that the North is also getting ready for a third nuclear test. According to the BBC:

The images show piles of earth and sand at the entrance of a tunnel at the Punggye-ri site, where tests of a nuclear bomb were previously carried out in 2006 and 2009, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reports.

Since Kim Jong Un took over the reins in Pyongyang after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, the West has been keen to divine the new leader's intentions. Another nuclear test, in conjunction with the provocative satellite test, would add to the impression that the younger Kim plans to follow his father's style of keeping the West off balance.

Both South Korea and Japan view the satellite launch as a threat and have warned that they will shoot the rocket down if it strays over their territory.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.