Japan is deploying its missile defense system in anticipation of North Korea's planned rocket launch, which could occur as early as Monday.
Japanese television showed three Aegis destroyers armed with SM-3 missile interceptors reportedly headed for the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan on Thursday.
Patriot missile interceptors later arrived at Okinawa island, which lies under the missile's projected flight path. Patriot missiles were also rolled into the field behind the defense ministry in Tokyo.
Japan has threatened to shoot down the North Korean missile if it goes off course. It is the same stance the government took last year before Pyongyang's failed rocket launch.
Japan's Missile Defenses
Standard Missile 3 Interceptors
Patriot Missile Interceptors
Ship launched missile
Used against short and intermediate range ballistic missiles
Cost per missile is $6 million to $9 million
Launched from land-based mobile launchers
Used against ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and aircraft
Cost per missile is $3.5 million
Michael Cucek, a research associate at the MIT Center for International Studies in Tokyo, says many Japanese are keeping an eye on the developments.
"If you watch television, you get this sense that the people, particularly in Okinawa prefecture, are concerned because the path of the missile will come close to them," he said. "Otherwise, it's a nice sunny day here in Tokyo, [and] people aren't concerned about it."
Pyongyang says it plans to launch the three-stage rocket sometime between December 10 and 22. It says the launch is aimed at placing a satellite into orbit.
Its neighbors and much of the rest of the world have warned against the launch, saying it is a disguised missile test banned under U.N. sanctions.
Lieutenant General Salvatore Angelella, commander of U.S. forces in Japan, said Thursday that U.S. troops are closely monitoring the situation, which he called "very dangerous."
"This is against the U.N. Security Council resolutions and we are monitoring the situation closely and working with the [Japanese] Self-Defense Force and the Ministry of Defense," he said.
On Wednesday, the U.S., Japanese and South Korean diplomats meeting in Washington agreed to take any North Korean launch to the U.N. Security Council for review.
The Security Council condemned a failed North Korean launch in April, during which the rocket disintegrated shortly after take-off.
Brad Glosserman of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum says North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is conducting another launch in an attempt to bolster his political credentials. But he says the move comes with some risk for the new leader.
"You'd be hard-pressed to have a more distinguished failure," he said. "And in fact, two failures in one year would be a pretty poor start to this new administration. You would think that given their [past] failures that he's aware that the stakes have been raised and that he needs a successful launch."
Professor Moon Chung-in of Yonsei University describes also describes it as a calculated political risk planned to coincide with key elections in Japan on December 16th and here in South Korea on the 19th.
“If North Korea is successful in putting the satellite into orbit, that will give [Pyongyang] a kind of scientific victory ... that will boost the political legitimacy of the North Korean leader," he said
Although Pyongyang certainly would like to see the conservatives in both countries fare poorly, a North Korean launch — succesful or otherwise — will factor in South Korea's election-season rhetoric.
“[The technology] can be turned into long-range ballistic-missile technology that can be a threat to South Korea, Northeast Asia and even to the United States," said Moon. "That being the case, that can hurt the [South Korean] candidate from the opposition party who has been favoring engagement with North Korea. But, overall, I would argue that the satellite launch by North Korea will help the candidate from the ruling [Saenuri] party.”
Attempted North Korean rocket launches ended in failure in both 2006 and 2009, although North Korea insisted on their success.
Despite international pressure, North Korea is apparently going ahead with preparations for the latest launch. It is reportedly in the final stages of preparing the Tongchang-ri launch site in the northwest of the country.
VOA correspondent Steve Herman contributed to this report.