- - Thursday, March 29, 2012

TOKYO Japan’s defense minister said Friday he had issued an order to shoot down a North Korean rocket if it threatens the nation’s territory, a planned launch that has raised global alarm bells.

Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka told reporters in Tokyo that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Cabinet gave the military the needed political approval on an escalating international crisis.

“I issued a ‘destroy’ order,” Mr. Tanaka said Friday morning.

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that new satellite imagery appears to show preparations for a long-range rocket launch in North Korea despite international objections.

The image from a privately operated satellite was taken Wednesday at the Tongchang-ri site, where North Korea says it plans to launch the rocket between April 12 and 16.

An analysis conducted for the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies says the image shows trucks and fuel tanks outside two large buildings that would be used to store propellant for the rocket.

It also shows work under way at a gantry tower next to a mobile launch pad, with a crane being used to load equipment. The rocket itself is not yet visible.

“The image shows not only that the launch is going ahead, but the preparations seem to be on schedule for the planned launch dates,” said Joel Wit, visiting fellow at the institute and editor of its website on North Korea, “38 North.”

North Korea said it would fire a rocket to put a satellite into orbit this month to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of founding president Kim Il-sung. But the U.S. and its allies suspect the launch is a disguised missile test, and said it would contravene U.N. sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea’s missile program.

President Obama has appealed to the North Korean leadership to abandon the rocket plan, but was promptly rebuffed by the North.

If the launch does go ahead, it will terminate a Feb. 29 accord between the longtime adversaries, under which the North agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests in exchange for food aid.

The U.S. says the plans to provide the food to the impoverished communist nation are already on hold.

In 2009, Japan ordered missile-defense preparations before Pyongyang’s last long-range rocket launch, which brought U.N. Security Council condemnation and tightened sanctions against the secretive Stalinist state.

That rocket, which North Korea also said was aimed at putting a satellite into orbit, passed over Japan without incident or any attempt to shoot it down.

Also Friday, two South Korean newspapers said North Korea test-fired two short-range missiles off its west coast this week amid the international alarm over the planned long-range rocket launch.

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