Order issued to intercept North missile debris

Kyodo, AP

Japan stepped up preparations Friday for a long-range rocket North Korea has warned it will launch during a 13-day period from next Monday, ordering the projectile’s destruction should any part of it threaten to fall onto Japanese territory.

The order by Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto comes after the government earlier in the day finalized plans for dealing with the planned launch at a meeting of the Security Council of Japan, which involves Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and other Cabinet members.

“All the preparations will be completed one day before the earliest launch date,” Morimoto said at a news conference, adding the Maritime Self-Defense Force is deploying two Aegis-equipped destroyers capable of launching antiballistic missiles to the East China Sea and another to the Sea of Japan as a precaution.

The U.S. Navy also said it has dispatched two warships equipped with the Aegis combat system to work with the MSDF destroyers to track the rocket’s trajectory.

North Korea has announced it will launch a rocket carrying an alleged “Earth observation satellite” in a southerly direction from its Tongchang-ri site in the country’s northwest, sometime between 7 a.m. and noon on any day between Monday and Dec. 22.

The move is seen by Japan, the United States and many other countries as a guise to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile.

On Friday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that Pyongyang is filling up a fuel tank at the Tongchang-ri launch site, where a three-stage rocket was fully assembled earlier this week, citing a senior military source in Seoul.

“As soon as (North Korea) completes injecting fuel into the storage (facility), it is expected to supply the rocket with fuel,” the source was quoted as saying after the South Korean government detected increased activity near the fuel tank. “Fuel injection (into the rocket) could begin Saturday.”

New satellite images indicate that snow may have slowed North Korea’s preparations, but Pyongyang could still be ready for liftoff from Monday, according to GeoEye satellite images recorded Tuesday and scrutinized by analysts for the 38 North and North Korea Tech websites.

Tokyo, meanwhile, plans to notify the public of the rocket launch as soon as it receives information from a U.S. early warning satellite, hoping to prevent a repeat of the embarrassing notification delay when the North attempted to send another “earth satellite” into orbit in April.

A similar destroy order was issued by the Defense Ministry prior to that launch, which ended in failure when the rocket veered off course shortly after liftoff and exploded, scattering debris over the Yellow Sea.

With Pyongyang’s latest rocket expected to take the same southern trajectory, passing over parts of Okinawa, the three MSDF destroyers are being strategically positioned in areas where they can hit parts of the rocket outside the Earth’s atmosphere with Standard Missile-3 interceptors, should they threaten to fall onto Japan’s territory.

The Air Self-Defense Force is also deploying Patriot surface-to-air guided missile batteries, mainly around Okinawa. Land-based PAC-3 units designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in their final phase have additionally been installed at three sites in Tokyo and its surrounding areas, one of them at the Defense Ministry.

Noda was expected to survey the PAC-3 battery moved to the premises of the Defense Ministry later in the day.

The government has urged the public to remain calm and carry on with their daily lives, saying that neither the rocket nor its debris will fall onto Japanese territory under normal circumstances.

But at the same time it is joining Washington and Seoul in continuing to press North Korea to refrain from the launch. The government also intends to consult with China and Russia to seek smooth cooperation over Pyongyang’s threatened launch.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a news conference that the planned launch “would go against past U.N. Security Council resolutions. Japan will closely cooperate with the United States and South Korea to seek self-restraint (by North Korea).”