Defenses brace for launch of North Korean rocket

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The United States and its allies are deploying missile defenses on land and sea so they can, if necessary, shoot down a multistage rocket that North Korea says it will launch within a few days.

Aviation and maritime authorities in Japan and the Philippines ordered all aircraft and boats to avoid the announced flight path of the rocket.

Japan and South Korea have said they will destroy the rocket or any falling parts of it if it threatens their territories. North Korea, which claims it is putting a weather satellite into orbit, says it will launch the rocket sometime from Thursday to Monday.

The U.S. Pacific Command also is prepared.

“Our deployed ships and other capabilities remain poised to respond to any tasking across the full spectrum of military operations,” Maj. Christian T. Devine, a Pacific Command spokesman, wrote in an email.

He declined to comment on specific deployments, but the NHK news network in Japan broadcast images of the USS Shiloh steaming off southwestern Okinawa, under the rocket’s projected flight path over the East China Sea.

The Shiloh is equipped with the Aegis anti-ballistic missile system, a combination of long-range radar and guided-missile launcher destined to shoot down fast targets at high altitudes.

NHK also said ground-based Patriot anti-missile batteries are deployed in Okinawa and Tokyo and that three Japanese navy Aegis warships are at sea. Two are off the Okinawa islands and the third in the East Sea/Sea of Japan, far from the rocket’s projected flight path but between North Korea and Japan’s major population centers.

“Aegis’ ability to intercept at very high altitudes is predicated on it being more or less directly under the flight path,” said John E. Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virgina-based think tank.

“Of course [U.S. and Japanese commanders] will have all their anti-missile assets trained on this launch. … Whether you want to shoot it down or not, it is a chance to test [the Aegis’ anti-ballistic missile technology].

“You get to watch it, track it, find out what it looks like in flight, find out if you have any problem tracking it.”

North Korean officials insisted again Tuesday that the launch is a peaceful effort to put a weather-and-research satellite into orbit. But U.S. and South Korean officials say the test will demonstrate rocket technology that could be used to reach parts of the United States with a ballistic missile.

North Korea says that the discarded stages of the rocket will fall harmlessly into the ocean, more than 100 miles from land off the western coast of South Korea for the first stage and north of the Philippines for the second.

If the rocket veers off course, it is “capable of self-destruction” from ground control, Ryu Kum-chol, of North Korea’s Committee for Space Technology, said in a rare briefing for foreign journalists in Pyongyang, the capital.

Some observers, commenting on an email list for satellite scholars, noted the trajectory that North Korea has disclosed is inconsistent with its claim that the launch is designed to put a satellite into so-called “sun-synchronous” orbit, where it passes over territories on the ground at the same time each day.

Pyongyang’s announcement was a “pretty wild claim for a country that has never successfully put an object into orbit before,” said Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force Space Command officer now with the Secure World Foundation think tank.

Mr. Weeden said the secretive communist regime is likely trying to emulate Iran, which in 2009 launched a communications satellite into orbit to only muted international criticism.

“That means doing everything on the surface that one would do if it were indeed a launch of a satellite for peaceful purposes,” he said.

He suspects, however, that the North Koreans are falsely “marketing” a missile test as a space launch.

If the launch is successful, it will demonstrate a capability to build a missile with enough range to reach parts of Alaska, 3,100 miles away.

North Korea is believed to have several nuclear weapons, although it has not overcome the difficult engineering challenges involved in fitting an atomic device into a warhead.

Mr. Pike played down the danger from this week’s planned launch itself, calling the U.S. and Japanese deployment of anti-missile units “posturing.”

“The whole reason [the North Koreans] are launching from the west coast rather than the east coast this time is so they won’t overfly Japan,” he said, referring to the newly built Sohae satellite station.

North Korea’s previous three multistage rocket launches were carried out from the Tonghae station, in the far northeast of the country, meaning their flight paths took them over Japan’s main islands.

The flight path from the new launch station will take the rocket over the Philippines, where officials said they would be relying on the United States and other allies to help them shoot down the rocket if it threatened to fall over the island nation.

“I feel reassured because of the capabilities of these countries. … We have the U.S. military base in Okinawa. We have also Japan and South Korea,” Philippine Civil Defense Administrator Benito Ramos told Voice of America.

If the rocket or a piece of it fell to Earth just a degree or two off its projected flight path, it would fall onto the northern island of Luzon, he said.

Mr. Pike said it was extremely unlikely that any part large enough to do serious damage would fall to earth if something went wrong

“When a rocket fails, it tends to fail completely, not slightly,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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