Japan Prepares to Intercept Possibly Errant N. Korean Missile

Japanese Defense Minister  Naoki Tanaka
Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka

The Japanese parliament has approved a resolution condemning North Korea's planned missile launch, and the country is also preparing contingencies should the missile veer off course and pose a threat to Japan.

Speaking in Tokyo Friday, Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka said the Japanese military will be prepared for any eventuality.

Tanaka says he is ordering officials to prepare deployment of PAC-3 surface-to-air missiles and Aegis destroyers carrying a state-of-the-art anti-missile system that could attempt to shoot down the rocket.

Pyongyang says it will place an earth observation satellite into a polar orbit in mid-April to honor the 100th birth anniversary of its late founder and perennial president, Kim Il Sung.

Members of the international community say the launch is a pretext for a long-range missile test, which North Korea is forbidden from conducting under U.N. sanctions.

South Korean and Japanese diplomats met in Seoul to share their responses to the upcoming launch.  Japan's nuclear envoy, Shinsuke Sugiyama, says Tokyo and Seoul are also in contact with other capitals.

"We agreed we should keep coordinating our positions and comparing notes between ROK [South Korea] and Japan, and also including those in Washington, and of course we should be ready to talk to the Chinese, which I will do, and Russians too as a member of the six-party talks," said Sugiyama.

The six-party talks were intended to negotiate an end to North Korea's nuclear programs.  But in 2009 Pyongyang announced it would “never again” participate after the U.N. Security Council moved to condemn North Korea for a failed launch that year.

North Korea also claimed that was a satellite launch, but observers reported the missile ended up falling into the Pacific Ocean.

Aerospace industry sources say Japan's response to next month's North Korea launch is a political gesture.  But it would provide a rare opportunity for the Japanese to train its personnel to track a missile from a potentially hostile source.

Japan is the only country, except for the United States, with the ship-based SM-3 Block 1-a missiles, part of the sophisticated Aegis weapons system.  Those missiles have a range of 500 kilometers and can fly above the atmosphere to destroy ballistic missiles.

The U.S. Navy has Aegis-equipped ships in Japan, as well.  And the U.S. Army stations Patriot missiles, which can reach an altitude of 24,000 meters, at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

Japan and the United States had these anti-missile systems ready for action during the 2009 North Korea launch.

North Korea has told international authorities the first stage of its rocket next month should fall into waters off South Korea's west coast and the second stage is to drop off the east coast of the Philippines.

The Philippines' defense minister has requested help from the United States to monitor the launch's trajectory.

Speaking in Singapore, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned a launch by North Korea would discourage international donors, worsening the humanitarian situation in the isolated and impoverished country.

The United States says if North Korea goes ahead with the launch the deal made last month with Pyongyang can not go through.  The agreement would provide the North with badly-needed food aid in exchange for a partial freeze of its nuclear programs.  

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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