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North Korea, China pose diplomatic hurdles for Abe

Air trespass after rocket launch a probe for weaknesses

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un entered his second year in power Monday, the first anniversary of the death of his father and longtime ruler Kim Jong Il.

Like it was under his predecessor, the Pyongyang regime continues to pose a security threat to Japan. This was underscored by the country’s launch last week of a long-range rocket that reportedly succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit. Japan and the West, however, believe the launch was another test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

China, with its growing assertiveness over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, is also a regional security threat that Shinzo Abe, the prime minister-in-waiting whose Liberal Democratic Party scored an overwhelming victory in Sunday’s election, must waste no time in addressing.

In what was believed a calculated move to take advantage of the distraction in Japan from Wednesday’s rocket launch, China sent a marine surveillance plane into Japan’s airspace over the islets Thursday for the first time ever, according to records dating back to 1958, the Defense Ministry said.

Since Japan on Sept. 11 effectively nationalized the Senkakus, China has repeatedly sent patrol ships to cruise near the islets in an apparent attempt to build a legal basis for making the claim that it wields effective control over the territory, which Japan first took control of in 1895.

Experts point to the timing of China sending a plane over the islets, which it calls Diaoyu and Taiwan calls Tiaoyutai.

“The region was focused on the surprising launch of a North Korean missile when this low-flying reconnaissance flight went undetected by Japan’s radar,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States.

“This implies that China is willing to use the opportunity afforded by other crises to test Japan, and to reveal vulnerabilities that Japan has not had to redress before,” Smith wrote in a blog posted on the council’s website Thursday.

It is not immediately known whether Abe’s hawkish stance on security and foreign affairs will be effective in addressing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threats and resolving the abduction issue, as well as the Senkaku row with Beijing and other territorial disputes with South Korea and Russia, as he tries to bolster Japan’s alliance with Washington.

“It marks the beginning of China’s air surveillance of the Diaoyu Islands. It is necessary to speed up this action and make the patrol a regular move,” the Chinese official newspaper Global Times said Friday, challenging Japan’s control of the islets through increased “law enforcement activity” around them.

“An aerial confrontation between China and Japan above the Diaoyu area will have much higher stakes than a standoff of ships between the two,” the paper said in an editorial. “The situation could easily veer into a serious military clash. But if Tokyo keeps on intercepting Chinese patrol planes, such a confrontation is bound to happen sooner or later.”

In Pyongyang, meanwhile, Kim Jong Un has vowed to continue to launch satellites to “develop the country’s science, technology and economy,” dismissing the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation Wednesday of the rocket launch as “a clear violation” of Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from testing ballistic missile technology.

Kim said the successful “satellite” launch showed Pyongyang’s “unshakable stand” to “exercise the country’s legitimate right to use space for peaceful purposes,” while Japan, South Korea and the U.S. agreed the action was a provocative act that undermines peace and stability in the region.

The liftoff was the North’s fifth bid to launch a long-range rocket since 1998. Experts say ICBMs and rockets for satellite launches share similar technology, and critics suspect the North may use it to develop missiles capable of lofting nuclear warheads as far away as the U.S.