Jittery Japan jumps gun on blastoff

Notices issued, retracted as North launch fails to happen

Compiled From Kyodo, Staff Report

North Korea didn’t carry out the expected rocket launch Saturday but Japan, on heightened alert, jumped the gun at one point midday and declared there was liftoff, only to quickly retract the announcement.

Pyongyang had said it planned to launch the rocket, which it claims is carrying a communications satellite, between 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. sometime from Saturday to Wednesday. Tokyo believed Saturday was the most likely day for the launch, given the relatively favorable weather.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told reporters: “We have ended the tight security measures for today, but they will be back on tomorrow, and we will continue to act with a sense of urgency.”

Despite North Korea’s satellite claims, Japan, the United States and South Korea believe the hermit state is actually planning to test a long-range ballistic missile.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, North Korea’s official media reported a “satellite” will be launched soon, which put Japanese officials and residents on higher alert. Shortly afterward, a brief false alarm went out in Akita Prefecture.

The Self-Defense Forces are prepared to shoot down the rocket or any part of it if Japanese territory is threatened. The projectile is expected to fly over the Tohoku region.

The government issued the incorrect announcement that North Korea had launched the rocket at 12:16 p.m., but five minutes later withdrew it, claiming an error had occurred in its Em-Net information-reporting system.

Officials at local governments, the Defense Ministry and the prime minister’s office all were perplexed by the error because they had been preparing to air information soon after the actual launch.

“We apologize to the people, as we caused them to worry, ” Kawamura said.

The government has deployed Patriot ground-to-air guided missile batteries to Akita and Iwate prefectures and sent two Aegis destroyers equipped with Standard Missile-3 interceptors in the Sea of Japan and another to the Pacific to track the rocket.

The government hopes to notify local governments and the media five to 10 minutes after the launch.

Fujio Nakano, a journalist versed in rocket technologies, said it is unlikely that either weather or technological problems prevented Pyongyang from launching Saturday, and thus political factors, which he didn’t specify, may have prevented the launch.

“(The rocket) should be simple in structure, using hydrazine as fuel. That’s different from high-tech rockets that use liquefied oxygen, such as space shuttles or Japanese rockets,” Nakano said.

“Technological troubles are unlikely and weather should not have been a factor. North Korea probably wanted to see how other countries, particularly Japan, reacted,” he said.

The Meteorological Agency said the weather was fine and the wind was 3 meters per second at an observation point near Musudan-ri, the launchpad site.

Yasunori Matoba, professor emeritus at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said the wind was not too strong for a launch Saturday, but technological factors could have prevented a liftoff.

“The wind was not strong, and you can’t say the weather was bad,” Matogawa said. “There could have been various (troubles), such as problems with the rocket, radar or antenna facilities on the ground. It’s not clear.”

On March 12, North Korea informed the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization of its plans to place in orbit a Kwangmyongsong-2 experimental communications satellite, using a Unha-2 rocket, which is reportedly known in the West as a Taepodong-2. On March 25, satellite images showed what appears to be a Taepodong-2 missile on the Musudan-ri launchpad.

A launch would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution barring the North from any ballistic missile activity.

In a dispatch released just after 10 a.m., the North’s Korean Central News Agency said the country has completed preparations and the rocket “will be launched soon.”

Just before the KCNA report, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted a South Korean official as saying, “We’re expecting a launch in hours.”