Japan has successfully launched its first two reconnaissance satellites, which are primarily to keep an eye on North Korea.
Japanese television footage shows the H2A rocket lifting off at 10:27 AM local time Friday from a remote launch site 1,000 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. The rocket soared through a brilliant blue sky, and trailed a plume of smoke, as it ferried Japan's first two spy satellites into space.
Hundreds of police circled the launch site, and coast guard ships were patrolling nearby waters, a precaution against possible terrorist attacks linked to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Japan supports. The heavy security was also in response to reports that Pyongyang might test-fire a ballistic missile around the time of the Japanese launch.
Japan's space agency bills the satellites as multi-purpose, but their primary use will be to gather intelligence on North Korea. Pyongyang has alarmed Tokyo over the past several years, and especially in the last six months, with a series of acts that Tokyo views as highly provocative. They include restarting banned nuclear facilities and withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In 1998, North Korea launched a long-range missile over Japan, catching Tokyo and its ally, Washington, by surprise. That test showed that Pyongyang had the ability to reach Japan with missile-based weapons. The launch prompted Japan to move forward with a program to develop its own surveillance capabilities, instead of having to rely on U.S. intelligence data.
Japanese government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda said other countries have satellites in orbit, and Japan had fallen behind them. He said the country will develop this and other strategies for gathering information, but says the aim is not to attack or invade other nations
Shigeru Ishiba, Japan's defense minister, said the launch is intended to foster peace, security and Japan's independence. He said that while the satellites will gather data, they pose no threat to other countries.
Despite these words of reassurance, North Korea has condemned the launch, saying it violates the spirit of a pact it signed with Japan last September, aimed at improving regional security.
Under that pact, North Korea agreed to extend its existing moratorium on missile testing beyond 2003. The Japanese are now watching nervously to see if Pyongyang will discard that agreement, and test another ballistic missile.