As concerns grow about North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions, and fears rise that Pyongyang could test another ballistic missile, Japan plans to launch its first reconnaissance satellites on March 28.
Japan's scheduled launch of two spy satellites comes at a tense diplomatic moment. The decision has angered North Korea, which has been locked in a global standoff over its nuclear ambitions since last October, when U.S. officials say it admitted to an illegal nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang, which refuses to give United Nations inspectors access to its nuclear facilities and has withdrawn from an international non-proliferation treaty, is warning Tokyo that the satellites could damage relations.
It says Japan's plans would violate the spirit of the Pyongyang Declaration, which was signed last year at the two nations' first summit. In the declaration the North promised to extend a moratorium on ballistic missile testing. Now, fears are growing in Japan that North Korea could backpedal on that pledge, especially while the United States is fighting the war with Iraq.
"I think North Korea will be concerned because Japan will operate its own satellites that can see things closely," said Yasuaki Hashimoto, a senior fellow at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies. "North Korea will know it is being watched but wil not know exactly what the Japanese are observing."
The communist North stopped testing ballistic missiles after a 1998 launch over Japan caused great alarm because it proved Pyongyang's missiles are capable of striking anywhere in Japan.
After that test, Tokyo decided to accelerate its satellite program. The move was controversial, because Japan's pacifist laws prevent the country's space agency from taking part in projects with a military purpose. For that reason, the new satellite system is being billed as "multi-purpose," even though the expectation is that it will be used for intelligence gathering.
"The satellites would potentially be capable of detecting whether North Korea is preparing to fire missiles," noted Motohiro Tsuchiya, a professor specializing in mobile communications systems at International University in Ibaraki Prefecture. "I think this technology will strengthen Japanese intelligence gathering."
In the past, Japan has depended on foreign companies, especially from the United States and France, to supply its satellites. But it was not always satisfied with its purchases.
Mr. Tsuchiya at International University explains Japan decided that putting more money behind a domestic satellite industry was the best long-term strategy, even though it will take years to fine tune the technology and train people to read the satellite photos.
"The problem is that Japan does not have trained experts to read the pictures," he said. "Japan is now working with the United States to improve these skills, but it will take about a decade, so for the present, Japan still needs to cooperate with the United States in this area."
The March launch will take place at Tanegashima Space Center, on an island in southern Japan. The Japanese government has cloaked the project in secrecy, saying the release of specific information could harm national security.
But Japanese news reports quote the government as saying the two satellites weigh about two tons each and should last about five years. One of them can recognize objects on Earth as small as one meter, while the other can take pictures at night or in bad weather.
Another pair of satellites is set to go into orbit in August, and the government hopes to replace them with upgraded versions in about six years. Together, the four satellites will cost about $2 billion.
But getting the satellites into orbit is a challenge for Japan. The nation's main rocket program had a series of costly failures and was nearly scrapped. But now, with growing unease about potential provocations from North Korea, the stakes are rising for a Japanese space program that can help the nation pinpoint and ward off dangerous regional threats.