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Russia, China urge North Korea to drop rocket launch plan

MOSCOW/BEIJING (Reuters) - Russia and China urged North Korea on Monday not to go ahead with a plan for its second rocket launch of 2012, with Moscow saying any such move would violate restrictions imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

North Korea's state news agency on Saturday announced the decision to launch another space satellite and reportedly told neighbors it would take a path similar to that planned for a failed rocket launch in April.

"We urgently appeal to the government (of North Korea) to reconsider the decision to launch a rocket," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

North Korea on Monday notified the U.N. shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization, about the launch, which was scheduled to take place between December 10 and December 22 at between 1600 and 2100 GMT.

Coordinates provided by Pyongyang showed the rocket's first stage drop-off would take place off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula and the second stage would occur off the Philippines - both stages nowhere near Japan.

Echoing its criticism of the April launch, Russia said North Korea had been warned not to ignore a U.N. Security Council resolution which "unambiguously prohibits (it) from launching rockets using ballistic technology".

China was not so direct in its criticism of North Korea, but urged "all sides" not to take any action that "worsens the problem".

"China believes that maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia accords with the interests of all sides and is the joint responsibility of all sides," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters.

"In the present circumstances, we hope all sides can be calm and restrained and not take any moves to worsen the problem. China will remain in touch and coordinate with all sides."

In Washington, the U.S. State Department repeated its opposition to any launch.

"We condemn what we consider to be a highly provocative action that would threaten peace and stability in the region," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

ELECTION IN SOUTH

North Korea says its rockets are used to put satellites into orbit for peaceful purposes. Russia said in its statement North Korea would be allowed to exercise its right to peaceful activity in space only if the U.N.-imposed restrictions were lifted.

The State Department's Toner scoffed at suggestions that Pyongyang was genuinely interested in space exploration.

"We are under no illusions that they're somehow pursuing a space program; it's pretty clear what they're trying to do here," he told a news briefing.

The warnings come just weeks before South Korea's December 19 presidential election in which how to handle North Korea is a major campaign issue. The isolated North has for years tried to influence major events in the South by issuing propaganda or launching armed attacks.

North and South Korea have been technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, and regional powers have for years been trying to rein in the North's nuclear program. North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

Countries trying to stop North Korea's arms program believe it is using rocket launches to perfect technology to build a missile arsenal capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States.

North Korea is under U.N. sanctions that ban trading in missile or nuclear technology that have driven its already dire economy deeper in trouble by cutting off what was once a lucrative source of hard cash.

Russia has often balanced criticism of the nuclear activities and missile launches of North Korea, a Soviet-era client state, with calls on other powers to refrain from belligerent actions against it, which Moscow says can be counterproductive.

Russia is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and is upset by any defiance of council resolutions. Past launches by Pyongyang have caused concern among Russians living near the country's border with North Korea.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Jonathan Saul in London and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Steve Gutterman and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel, Mark Heinrich and Mohammad Zargham)

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