Japan Threatens to Down North Korean Rocket

By The Associated Press 30 March 2012

TOKYO—Japan’s defense minister ordered missile units to intercept a rocket expected to be launched by North Korea next month if it flies over Japan.

The order from Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka came at a meeting of Japan’s national security council on Friday.It followed instructions issued earlier in the week for the military to prepare to intercept the satellite rocket if it enters Japanese territory.

The Unha-3 rocket is expected to fly past western Japan after its launch from North Korea’s west coast sometime between April 14 and 16. The plan has raised concerns that a failed launch, or a falling stage of the rocket, could endanger Japanese lives or property.

A statement from the Defense Ministry said Japan would send destroyers equipped with Aegis missile defense systems to the Pacific and East China Sea and deploy mobile Patriot missile launchers to islands in Okinawa. An interceptor missile unit is also likely to be deployed in Tokyo, although the capital is well away from the expected flight path.

Seoul has also warned it might shoot down any parts of the North Korean rocket that pass over South Korean territory.

North Korea has said it plans to launch a satellite into orbit. Japan, the United States and other countries claim it is also seeking to test the capabilities of its long-range missiles, in violation of international agreements.

Japan mobilized its interceptor units and issued a similar warning to North Korea before a rocket launch in 2009, but did not follow through.

Interceptor missiles on the Japanese destroyers would serve as the first line of defense, and the land-based Patriot missiles would be a backup. Japan has successfully tested its interceptor missiles, but has never used them in a real-world situation.

New satellite imagery appears to show preparations beginning for the long-range rocket launch despite the fierce international objections. The image from a privately operated satellite was taken Wednesday at the Tongchang-ri site, where North Korea says it plans to launch the rocket between April 12 and 16.

An analysis conducted for the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies says the image shows trucks and fuel tanks outside two large buildings that would be used to store propellant for the rocket.

It also shows work under way at a gantry tower next to a mobile launch pad, with a crane being used to load equipment. The rocket itself is not yet visible.

“The image shows not only that the launch is going ahead but the preparations seem to be on schedule for the planned launch dates,” said Joel Wit, visiting fellow at the institute and editor of its website on North Korea, “38 North.”

North Korea says the launch is to fire an observation satellite into orbit and mark the centennial of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung. The US says it is a cover to test long-range missile technology and violates UN Security Council resolutions.