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Japan Protests NKorea's Rocket Launch Plan

HYUNG-JIN KIM   03/13/09 10:25 PM ET   AP

North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — Japan hinted it could down an incoming North Korean rocket, but analysts said the communist country will go ahead with a planned April launch with little fear of the consequences.

The North announced this week it will send a satellite into orbit between April 4-8, 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 (120 kilometers) 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 Friday.

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

"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 landed 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 the country is capable of intercepting a medium-range missile. North Korea, though, is expected to fire a long-range rocket next month.

He said the most efficient way to launch a satellite into orbit is to send it eastward toward Japan because of the Earth's motion.

Masao Okonogi, an international relations professor at Tokyo's Keio University, said Japanese officials feel they have little choice but to engage in strong rhetoric.

"Government officials are talking tough because they don't want to be seen as passive in the face of a North Korean launch," he said.

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.

"After the launch, there will be a little bit of noise but that will pass and things will move on to the next stage," said Kim Tae-woo, of the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "I believe the U.S. will offer dialogue."

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.

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Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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Filed by Hanna Ingber Win  |