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Japan on edge as North Korean rocket launch date nears

March 30, 2009

The Japanese and U.S. military are deploying land and sea-based missile interceptors and ships with high-tech radar, Japanese local authorities are holding drills and a Tokyo resident is dreaming of missiles as the date nears for a rocket launch by Japan’s secretive neighbour North Korea.

KOREA NORTH/MISSILEPyongyang has said the launch planned for April 4-8 is for the peaceful purpose of sending a satellite into orbit, but the United States, South Korea and Japan see it as a disguised test of a Taepodong-2 missile that in theory could reach Alaska or Hawaii.

In an unprededented step, Japan on Friday authorised its military to shoot down any rocket or debris that threatens to fall on its territory, and is deploying ship-based Standard Missile-3 interceptors and land-based Patriot Advance Capability-3 interceptors to be ready to fire if need be.

Government officials have said there is no reason for the public to panic, saying dangerous debris is highly unlikely to hit Japan and that Tokyo is doing its best to be ready just in case. But they acknowledge that there are no guarantees.

Japan, which accelerated the build-up of its anti-missile defences after North Korea blasted a missile over the country in 1998, would have just 10 minutes notice if a missile or debris threaten its territory.

“The government has done what it can up to now to build a missile defence system,” Japanese Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada said in parliament on Monday.

“We can’t say for sure how solid and perfect the technology is since there are various possibilities, but we want to carry out what we have been doing so far while keeping every possibility in mind.”

Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone was more blunt last week on whether Japan could shoot down something threatening its territory.korea-north-japan

“It is a fact that it is difficult. Our country has not done this before. We don’t know how or where it will fly, ” Nakasone told reporters, prompting his ministry to issue a statement later saying he had been speaking in general terms.

Local authorities are doing what they can to get ready for the worst, with 35 officials from northern Japan, over which the rocket is expected to fly, gathering with defence officials last week.

Even some spots far from the forecast trajectory are girding their loins.  Officials in Tottori in southwestern Japan, around 500 miles southeast of Pyongyang, held two drills last week. By Saturday, all but two of its municipalities had managed to relay information to residents within 10 minutes.

Tottori official Tadashi Fukuta told Reuters the best thing to do if some object threatened to fall from the sky was to go inside, but he confessed: “Of course, nothing can be done if it falls from directly above.”

All the news coverage of the expected launch is giving some Japanese restless nights.

“I saw a missile fly by in my dream,” one of my friends in Tokyo told me.

But the head of the outgoing commander of the U.S. Navy in Japan said there was nothing to fear.

“Number one, I wouldn’t lose sleep at night,” Rear Admiral James Kelly told reporters. “Number two, Japan is very safe.”

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