Japan last week put its first Earth-circling spy satellites in orbit, acquiring its own capability to gather intelligence information from space about conditions in other countries. There is little doubt, considering recent developments in and around North Korea, that these two satellites are designed particularly to cope with missile threats from the reclusive authoritarian state.

The government has explained that these satellites are limited to peaceful applications because they use only civilian technology. Japan is explicitly committed to the nonmilitary development and use of space, as stated in relevant laws and Diet resolutions. That commitment has been affirmed internationally as well. But it is also true, as the government itself has acknowledged, that these two satellites are intended to bolster the nation’s defenses by improving its intelligence-gathering capability.

That may be part of the reason why so few details about the satellites, such as their performance characteristics and predetermined orbits — let alone the nature of their photographs — have been published. These details, the reasoning goes, are classified as state secrets. It is fairly clear, though, that Japan’s space development program has now assumed military overtones. What remains unclear is how effective the new satellites will be in helping the Defense Agency assess threats of a missile attack.

The government decided to deploy spy satellites after North Korea in 1998 test-fired a Taepodong ballistic missile that flew over Japan and fell into the Pacific. One satellite, equipped with an optical sensor, is said to be effective only during the day when the sky is clear. The other, mounted with a “synthetic-aperture radar,” is described as an all-weather type that operates around the clock. Experts say both satellites can detect, for example, North Korean preparations for a missile launch.

Together with another pair of the same satellites scheduled for launch this summer, Japan will be able to collect and analyze detailed data about suspicious locations abroad, such as missile and nuclear facilities in North Korea. The estimated cost of this satellite system, however, is enormous — 250 billion yen. The outlay is bound to increase because the four satellites are to be replaced gradually by improved versions. The government reportedly plans to have launched eight intelligence-gathering satellites by 2009.

North Korea has denounced the satellite launches as a “hostile act” that violated last September’s Tokyo-Pyongyang declaration, saying Japan is “sparking a new arms race in Northeast Asia.” The strong reaction comes at a time of rising tension in the region, with Pyongyang playing a game of brinkmanship with veiled threats to develop nuclear weapons. Moreover, the war in Iraq is casting a shadow over the North Korean crisis. An escalation of the tension with the North at such a critical time should be avoided.

In this sense, a series of hardline comments by Defense Agency Director General Shigeru Ishiba has obviously exceeded the bounds of discretion. Although a question about how Japan should meet a possible missile attack from North Korea is valid, the defense chief has said, for example, that it is “worth considering” whether Japan should possess a capability of attacking a missile base in a hostile country.

The satellites come under the control of the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center, which currently has a staff of about 320, including nearly 100 image analysts. Little else is known about this program. Understandably, confidentiality is an important factor given the nature of the satellites. Still, the government would do well to disclose as much information as it can about how the program is managed. That would be essential to securing public support and understanding.

Experts point out that Japan’s first spy satellites have a major drawback: a relatively low level of performance. The optical type, they say, is nearly as effective as U.S. commercial imaging satellites, but both types are inferior to the spy satellites used by the U.S. military. This problem, however, can be improved in coming years. For now, the significance seems to be largely symbolic: Japan now has its own intelligence-gathering satellites.

The possibility remains, however, that in the long run the nation’s defense capability might change qualitatively as the satellite intelligence-gathering system is expanded and improved. There is also the immediate danger that Japan might be drawn into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with North Korea unless discreet use is made of the new satellites. The bottom line is that the basic principle of peaceful space development should be kept intact.

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