- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

SEOUL | An angry Japan hinted Friday it could down an incoming North Korean rocket, but analysts dismissed the talk as bluster and said the communist country could go ahead with a planned April launch with little fear of the consequences.

The North announced this week that it will send a satellite into orbit between April 4 and April 8, saying it would fly over Japan and designating a “danger” zone off the neighboring country in order to warn international shipping and aviation to avoid the area.

The rocket’s first stage is expected to fall in waters less than 75 miles from Japan’s northwestern shore, according to coordinates Pyongyang provided to U.N. agencies. The other zone where the second stage should fall lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Japan and Hawaii.

The U.S. and other governments have warned that any rocket launch - whether missile test or satellite - would violate a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution banning North Korea from ballistic missile activity.

“We protest a launch, and strongly demand it be canceled,” Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said Japan reserves the right to destroy the rocket if it looks like it could hit the country.

“Legally speaking, if this object falls toward Japan, we can shoot it down for safety reasons,” he said.

Japan, which was shaken in 1998 when a North Korean missile flew over its territory and went down in the Pacific, has since moved to develop missile defense capabilities with some success. It downed a ballistic missile from a ship at sea in a 2007 test.

Lance Gatling, an independent defense analyst, said Japan is capable of intercepting a medium-range missile. North Korea, though, is expected to fire a long-range rocket next month.

Other analysts say North Korea is likely to stick with its plan despite intense international criticism as it has little to fear and much to gain by following through with what is seen as an attempt to bolster its standing in nuclear negotiations with the United States.

Ultimately, a successful satellite launch would provide North Korea with the upper hand in its future negotiations with the U.S. as it would mean the country could show it has a delivery vehicle for its nuclear weapons, according to Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the private think tank Sejong Institute near Seoul.

“Then, the North will have not only a nuclear card but a missile card,” he said.

Indeed, North Korean brinksmanship has worked in the past. Its underground atomic test in October 2006 gave new impetus to international nuclear negotiations, forcing the administration of President George W. Bush to engage in direct talks with Pyongyang that ultimately led to a breakthrough.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has urged the North to give up the launch, said Wednesday that the U.S. remains committed to restarting six-nation talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear programs “at the earliest possible moment.”

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