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All Eyes on Japan as North Korea Prepares for Missile Launch

Top leaders in South Korea and the United States have all but dismissed the use of military means to interfere with North Korea's launch of a long-range rocket, believed to be just days away. Many observers are now watching to see if Japan will make good on contingency plans to shoot down the rocket.

About 100 protesters rallied in downtown Seoul, Monday, shouting slogans against the North Korean government and its plans for an imminent launch of a long-range rocket.

Pyongyang says it will fire what it calls a communications satellite into space, within days. A United States scientific institute has released new satellite images showing the North's rocket standing up on a launch pad. That is seen as a strong indicator liftoff is on track to proceed between April 4 and 8, as the North has announced.

South Korea, the United States and Japan view the launch as an unacceptable attempt to advance North Korea's offensive ballistic missile capability. They say the launch will violate a 2006 United Nations resolution imposed after Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon and that it require some form of response.

However, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is rejecting any kind of military response to the launch. In an interview published Monday by Britain's Financial Times, Mr. Lee is also quoted as saying he will avoid other "extreme" measures such as closing down a joint North-South industrial park.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is also downplaying military action. He says the United States would only attempt to shoot down the rocket in the unlikely event it appeared to pose a direct threat to U.S. territory.

One of two advanced U.S. warships expected to monitor the launch from waters between North Korea and Japan departed a South Korean port, Monday. South Korea and Japan are also believed to be sending advanced anti-missile destroyers to collect data on the launch.

Japan is the only country that has made explicit public plans to attempt to shoot down the North Korean rocket. The launch trajectory is expected to pass directly over northern Japanese territory. Japan's defense minister ordered the country's self-defense forces last week to prepare to destroy any part of the rocket that looks like it may pose a threat.

Park Seung-jae is a consultant to South Korea's Defense Ministry and works with the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul. He feels certain Japan will attempt a shootdown.

"Trying by Japan is very important," Park said. "Success or not, is a second question. Japan has a right to shoot [the rocket] down. No other country will argue with that."

Park says a shootdown attempt - especially a successful one - would boost the political fortunes of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose approval ratings have plummeted in recent months.