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Speculation mounts of imminent N. Korea rocket launch
By Thomas WATKINS, with Hiroshi HIYAMA in Tokyo
Washington (AFP) Jan 29, 2016

Japan orders military to prepare to destroy N. Korea missile: reports
Tokyo (AFP) Jan 29, 2016 - Japan has ordered its military to be ready to destroy any missile fired by North Korea that threatens the country, local media reported Friday, as concerns mount that Pyongyang is preparing a rocket launch.

Defence Minister Gen Nakatani issued the order, the Nikkei daily and Kyodo News reported, after reports of suspicious activity at Pyongyang's main satellite complex fuelled speculation a launch could come as early as next week.

A Japanese defence ministry spokeswoman declined to confirm the report when contacted by AFP, saying that "would reveal our strategy".

"But we are taking all possible measures to respond (to a missile launch) by collecting information and coordinating with countries concerned," she added.

North Korea is banned from using ballistic missile technology by UN Security Council resolutions, so any launch would further raise tensions among the international community only weeks after its latest nuclear test.

Two US defence officials confirmed to AFP on Friday there was ongoing activity at the North's Sohae satellite complex, which Pyongyang has been upgrading to handle larger, longer-range rockets since 2013.

Their comments came after Japan's Kyodo News, citing an anonymous government source, said satellite imagery showed increased movement at Sohae that could suggest a launch as early as next week.

Also on Friday, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida held telephone talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry about the possible launch.

"We can't deny the possibility that North Korea will take further provocative action," Kishida told reporters, adding that he and Kerry had "exchanged information on how to cooperate from now on".

Japan deployed surface-to-air missile defences in 2012, the same year North Korea put a satellite into orbit with its Unha-3 carrier.

Although Pyongyang insisted it was a purely scientific operation, that launch was condemned by the international community as a disguised ballistic missile test and resulted in a tightening of UN sanctions.

Speculation mounted Friday that North Korea is preparing a rocket or long-range missile launch to follow its recent nuclear test, with Japan reportedly ordering its military to shoot down any projectile that threatened its territory.

With existing UN Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from the use of ballistic missile technology, any launch would be a further slap in the face of the international community which is struggling to find a united response to the January 6 nuclear test.

Following a Japanese report that cited government sources as saying a rocket launch could come as early as next week, two US defence officials confirmed ongoing activity at the North's Sohae satellite complex.

"The indications are that they are preparing for some kind of launch," one US official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Could be for a satellite or a space vehicle -- there are a lot of guesses. North Korea does this periodically -- they move things back and forth," the official said.

The United States regularly monitors North Korea from space, while Japan began satellite monitoring of the country in 2003.

North Korea successfully put a satellite into orbit with its Unha-3 carrier in December 2012.

Although Pyongyang insisted it was a purely scientific operation, that launch was condemned by the international community as a disguised ballistic missile test and resulted in a tightening of UN sanctions.

- Disguised ICBM test -

"Our concern is that when they do a space launch, it happens to be the same components that can be used in an ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile)," a second US official said.

Since early 2013, North Korea has been upgrading the Sohae launch complex to handle larger, longer-range rockets with heavier payloads, but most experts say Pyongyang is still years away from obtaining a credible ICBM capability that could threaten the US mainland.

Citing an anonymous government source, Kyodo News in Japan said satellite imagery showed increased movement at Sohae that could suggest a launch as early as next week.

The main launch site also appears to have been covered over -- a precursor for launches in the past.

Analysts at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said the activity at Sohae was low-level, suggesting any launch preparations were in the "early stages."

"However, it is important to note that there is a high level of uncertainty about this judgement for a number of reasons and Pyongyang may be further along in its preparations," they added.

Other observers have noted that North Korea has yet to issue a maritime shipping alert -- a standard procedure it has adhered to with previous long-range tests.

Separate Japanese press reports said Defence Minister Gen Nakatani had ordered the shooting down of any missile seen as threatening Japan.

Tokyo had issued a similar destroy order at the time of the 2012 rocket launch.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said he had discussed the situation in a phone call Friday morning with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

"We can't deny the possibility that North Korea will take further provocative action," Kishida told reporters afterwards.

- UN sanctions debate -

The prospect of a rocket launch comes with intense diplomatic efforts already under way to punish North Korea for its fourth nuclear test.

Washington is pushing for a strong UN response, including enhanced sanctions, but China, North Korea's chief diplomatic protector and economic benefactor, is reluctant.

Pyongyang said the blast was a miniaturised hydrogen bomb -- a claim dismissed by most experts who say the yield was far too low.

A US official quoted by CNN said the latest assessment, following further seismic analysis, suggested the test, while not of a full-fledged thermonuclear device, may have incorporated H-bomb "components" such as a detonator.

Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing on Wednesday and said they had agreed to mount an "accelerated effort" to resolve their differences over a new UN resolution condemning the test.

Kerry, who said nuclear-armed North Korea poses an "overt threat, a declared threat to the world," acknowledged that the two diplomats had not agreed on the "parameters of exactly what (a resolution) would do or say."


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Previous Report
Images suggest N. Korea may be preparing missile launch: reports
Tokyo (AFP) Jan 28, 2016
North Korea may be preparing a long-range ballistic missile launch, Japanese media said Thursday, following a nuclear test this month that raised international alarm and sparked a diplomatic clash between Washington and Beijing. Imagery collected over the past several days suggested the launch from the western Dongchang-ri site could come in about a week, Kyodo News said, citing a Japanese g ... read more

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