Japan on Wednesday condemned Pyongyang’s plan to launch a space rocket, calling it a thinly disguised test of a long-distance ballistic missile.
The government ordered Aegis ballistic missile defense warships of the Maritime Self-Defense Force and land-based Patriot PAC-3 rocket units to respond should projections show components falling in Japanese territory.
“This will effectively mean the firing of a ballistic missile. It would be a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and a grave, provocative act against the security of our country,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a Lower House session Wednesday.
“Japan, in cooperation with the United States and South Korea, will strongly urge North Korea to refrain from (conducting) the launch,” Abe said.
On Tuesday night, North Korea notified the International Maritime Organization that it plans to send a “satellite” into orbit between Feb. 8 and 25. It said the launch will take place on one of those days between 7:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Japan time.
Pyongyang conducted a fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6. The planned launch is widely seen as both a test and a demonstration of its advances in rocketry.
Feb. 16 is the birthday of late leader Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un. Observers believe the launch window has been set around the day for domestic purposes — to bolster the nation’s morale.
During a daily news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga pointed out that the projectile, expected to be launched from a site in western North Korea, would fly over part of the Sakishima island chain of Okinawa Prefecture, which includes the islands of Ishigaki and Miyako.
Japan lodged a formal protest with the North’s embassy in Beijing at 7:55 a.m. on Wednesday, Suga said.
“U.N. Security Council resolutions have repeatedly banned any launch by North Korea that uses ballistic missile technologies,” Suga said.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani ordered the Self-Defense Forces to destroy any parts of the rocket should they threaten to fall within Japanese territory.
Japan has already deployed Aegis destroyers equipped with the SM-3 missile system at sea and Patriot PAC-3 air-defense units of the Ground Self-Defense Forces on land. Both systems are designed to intercept ballistic missiles.
Their primary mission is seen as monitoring the launch, but the deployment also appears to be a gesture underlining Japan’s determination to defend its territory.
Pyongyang’s declared plan would involve three parts of the rocket falling west of the Korean Peninsula, in the East China Sea southwest of the peninsula and in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines, respectively.
The rocket is expected to fly over the Sakishima island chain, according to a map with navigation warnings posted by the Japan Coast Guard on its website.
The course matches that of a ballistic missile Pyongyang launched in December 2012, Suga said.
Later Wednesday, a high-ranking government official said Pyongyang may be preparing to launch the same type of missile as the one it used in 2012. A Defense Ministry white paper says Pyongyang fired a variant of its Taepodong-2 ballistic missile at that time.
A missile of this type can fly more than 10,000 km if the warhead weighs less than a ton, the Defense Ministry said.
If North Korea develops long-range ballistic missiles using the technologies tested in the launches, “the missiles could have ranges that potentially reach the central, western, and other areas of the U.S. mainland,” the Defense Ministry concluded in its 2015 white paper.
Meanwhile, Washington and Seoul have both condemned Pyongyang’s plan.
“The international community would regard a step like that by the North Koreans as just another irresponsible provocation and a clear violation of their international obligations,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday in Washington.
“The U.S. has worked closely not just with our allies in South Korea and Japan but also with our partners in China and Russia, to convey to the North Koreans the need to end their provocative actions,” he said.
Earnest also maintained that China has “unique influence over the North Korean regime,” urging Beijing to join the U.S. and its allies to “counter this threat.”
Urging Pyongyang to drop its plan, the government in Seoul said the move would be a serious breach of U.N. resolutions and a “direct challenge” to the international community.
China on Wednesday expressed serious concern over North Korea’s plan, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang calling on Pyongyang to “exercise restraint” and not escalate tensions in the region.
According to the Defense Ministry, Patriot PAC-3 air-defense units have been deployed at bases and facilities of the Self-Defense Forces in Asaka, Saitama Prefecture, Narashino, Chiba Prefecture, and Naha and Chinen of Okinawa Prefecture, as well as at the Defense Ministry’s compound in Tokyo’s Ichigaya district.
The ministry said that it will consider whether further deployment is necessary elsewhere.
Aegis destroyers carrying the SM-3 missile system have been deployed in the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida met with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy over North Korea’s move Wednesday evening.
“It’s important that Japan and the U.S. coordinate with each other closely. We hope to increase dialogue between us,” Kishida said during the meeting.
Kennedy responded by emphasizing that the trilateral relationship among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea is “critical” to deal with North Korea’s provocations.
Staff writer Tomohiro Osaki also contributed to this report