By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Satellite images taken this week of North Korea's Sohae rocket launch site show apparent fueling activity that has been seen in the past one to two weeks before a rocket launch, a U.S. think tank said on Friday.
North Korea has notified U.N. agencies it will launch a rocket carrying what it called an earth observation satellite some time between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25, triggering international opposition from governments that see it as a long-range missile test.
Commercial satellite images from Wednesday and Thursday show the arrival of tanker trucks at the launch pad, said the Washington-based 38 North, a North Korea-monitoring project. It said the presence of the trucks likely indicated the filling of tanks within bunkers at the site rather than a rocket itself.
"In the past, such activity has occurred 1-2 weeks prior to a launch event and would be consistent with North Korea’s announced launch window," the report said.
A U.S. defense official said on Thursday that activity detected at the site was consistent with a launch in the time frame given by North Korea.
The report from 38 North, a project run by the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, said activity could also be seen around a building at the site used in the past to receive and assemble rocket stages.
It said the imagery showed vehicles including one or two buses and a crane and added: "This level of activity compares favorably to that seen prior to the previous launch in 2012."
The report said the images indicated no significant changes at the launch pad itself, where work platforms on the gantry towers remained folded forward. It said coverings obscured whether a space-launch vehicle was present on the pad.
"Although there is no activity indicating an imminent launch, the gantry tower and launch pad complex appear to capable of conducting a launch within the announced launch window, the report added.
North Korea says it has a sovereign right to pursue a space program. But it is barred under U.N. Security Council resolutions from using ballistic missile technology.
Coming so soon after North Korea's fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, a rocket launch would raise concern that it plans to fit nuclear warheads on its missiles, giving it the capability to strike South Korea, Japan and possibly the U.S. West Coast.
The United States has deployed missile defense systems that will work with the Japanese and South Korean militaries to track the launch.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Eric Walsh and David Alexander)