- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

AKITA, JAPAN (AP) - Crisis centers are being hurriedly set up and a nearby military base bristles with Patriot missile interceptors. But fisherman Masami Fujiwara scoffs at all the fuss _ he says he isn’t concerned that a North Korean rocket may soon be flying over his head.

Like many others, Fujiwara says Japan’s aggressive response has only heightened tensions with North Korea.

“We should never trust politicians,” the 68-year-old Fujiwara said. “It’s the wrong move.”

Tokyo has ordered radar-equipped destroyers to the Sea of Japan and activated batteries of advanced Patriot 3 interceptor missiles. Tough-talking lawmakers passed a resolution this week demanding the cancellation of the launch, which North Korea says will happen between Saturday and Wednesday.

Some analysts say the government is overreacting. They worry Japan’s threats to shoot down any rocket debris headed for its territory could backfire, because of the difficulty of doing so. The only saving grace may be that the possibility of debris hitting Japan appears low.

A similar launch in 1998 shocked Japan when the second stage of the rocket flew over its main island before plunging into the Pacific Ocean. This time, North Korea has announced the launch in advance. The rocket on the launchpad is believed to be an updated version of the Taepodong rocket that was fired in 1998.

Still, most residents appear nonplussed in Akita, a city on Japan’s northern coast directly across the Sea of Japan from North Korea.

“I’m not interested,” said Sueko Meguro, 59, the owner of a local noodle shop. “If North Korea is really firing a missile, go right ahead.”

Many in Japan are beginning to wonder if the tough talk was more political grandstanding than substance.

After initially hinting it might try to shoot down the rocket _ which North Korea immediately said would be an act of war _ Tokyo backed off. Officials now say they will only respond if fragments from the launch appear to be falling toward Japan.

South Korea and the United States have said they do not plan any military response, although they are monitoring the situation closely.

In Akita and elsewhere on the northern coast, officials are preparing for any contingency. North Korea has said the first stage of the rocket is likely to fall into the Japan Sea in a zone that ends just 80 miles (130 kilometers) offshore.

Crisis control officials opened an emergency center Thursday in Akita, which lies 280 miles (450 kilometers) north of Tokyo.

Police and rescue workers are on standby, and teachers have been instructed to keep radios and televisions on at all times starting Saturday to monitor for any announcement or unexpected event during weekend school activities.

About 30 officials, including Akita Prefecture Gov. Sukeshiro Terata, will be on duty at the emergency headquarters this weekend.

Terata urged calm. He said the possibility of a launch failure that would send debris falling toward Japan was “one in a million.”

Some analysts question whether the unpopular administration of Prime Minister Taro Aso ramped up the rhetoric to boost its image by appearing tough and in control.

“Russia, China and the United States are regularly testing missiles in their own territories, but those are largely ignored here,” said Takao Toshikawa, an independent political analyst. “Japan is overreacting.”

Toshikawa also suggested that the threat was being used as an excuse to mobilize Japan’s multibillion-dollar ballistic missile shield, which it has developed since the 1998 launch in close cooperation with the U.S.

Along with Patriot missiles, Japan now has a spy satellites of its own that can follow activity in North Korea.

“The government has spent a huge amount of money on the missile defense system, so this is a perfect chance for the Defense Ministry to show that it is on top of the crisis,” he said. “By treating it as a clear and present danger, the government is fanning the sense of crisis so that they can justify installing more interceptors.”

But Japan may have painted itself into a corner. The country has twice tested its ship-to-air interceptors but has succeeded only once. And shooting down debris would likely be more difficult because of its unpredictable trajectory.

“If Japan fails an intercepting attempt, it would be a serious setback for the country’s defense policy, because people would think the costly missile defense system is not reliable,” said Minoru Morita, another political analyst.

“The Japanese government has managed to convince the public of the need for a stronger defense capability, while Aso probably regained some support by acting as though everything was under control,” he said. “But after taking it this far, Japan dare not actually try to intercept debris and fail and end up losing everything, including their credibility.”

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