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Japan Prepares to Shoot Down North Korean Missile in Case of Accident

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 28, 2009

TOKYO, March 27 -- Japan ordered its military on Friday to destroy a North Korean missile or its debris if the launch fails and falling pieces of the rocket imperil Japanese territory.

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Japan ordered two destroyers equipped with American-built Aegis antimissile systems into the Sea of Japan and said it will soon move Patriot land-to-air missiles to the country's northern coast, over which the North Korean rocket is likely to fly.

The orders punctuated a week of rising tensions in Northeast Asia, as North Korea moved its rocket to a launchpad and warned the world not to interfere or impose sanctions for its planned launch of what it describes as a communications satellite. The launch is scheduled between April 4 and 8.

Japan, South Korea and the United States have repeatedly asked North Korea to cancel the launch, calling it a provocative pretext for the test of a long-range ballistic missile, which may be able to strike Alaska. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the launch could harm talks aimed at helping North Korea with food and fuel in return for its abandonment of nuclear weapons.

Japan took pains Friday to explain that it is preparing for a possible accident, not for an attack. Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said he issued orders "to prepare for an event in which a North Korean projectile falls onto our country in an accident."

North Korea has notified maritime and aviation groups around the world of its plans to send a satellite into orbit and has released details of its expected flight trajectory. It shows that the missile would fly high over northern Japan as it headed into orbit. The first stage of the rocket is expected to fall into the Sea of Japan, and the second stage into the northern Pacific.

Japanese officials said Friday that the likelihood of rocket debris falling on Japan is remote and urged people to remain calm.

"I believe it normally wouldn't fall onto our country's territory," Takeo Kawamura, chief of staff in the prime minister's office, said at a news conference.

Japan began investing in antimissile weaponry after North Korea surprised the world in 1998 by firing a long-range Taepodong-1 missile over the island nation into the Pacific Ocean.

Afterward, amid an international outcry, North Korea said it had merely exercised its right to "space development." It asserted then that it had succeeded in launching a research satellite. The U.S. government later concluded that the missile had failed to put a satellite into orbit.

That launch and another round of North Korean missile tests in 2006 alarmed Japan, which has invested heavily in American-made ballistic-missile-defense systems. North Korea has 200 Nodong medium-range missiles that could hit anywhere in Japan, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry.

There are doubts among missile experts about whether Japan's antimissile network -- a combination of sea-to-air Aegis missiles and land-to-air Patriot rockets -- can protect the country in the event of a Nodong missile attack.

"They are not up to the job," said Theodore Postol, an expert on missile systems and a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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