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Tensions Soar Ahead Of North Korean Missile Launch

The missile launch presents another opportunity for North Korea to flex its military muscle
North Korea has said it will send a communications satellite into orbit between April 4 and 8, raising concerns among its neighbors about Pyongyang's true intentions for the launch.

Topping the list of worries is the possibility that North Korea is using the mission as an opportunity to test -- and perhaps perfect -- its missile launch capabilities. If perfected, the Taepodong-2 would be capable of easily hitting Japan and, theoretically, even targets as far away as Alaska.

In addition, when Pyongyang fired off its longest-range missile in its only previous test flight in 2006, the Taepodong-2 blew up shortly after launch -- either because of a malfunction or because ground control feared it was about to veer wildly off course.

In Japan, public worry over the planned launch early next month is growing by the day. On March 27, the army sought to reassure citizens that it is able to destroy any missile, or debris from an aborted missile, that threatens to land in Japan.

Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada announced that he had issued an order, in keeping with Japan's Self-Defense Forces Act, "to prepare to destroy any object that might fall on Japan as a result of an accident involving a flying object from North Korea."

News reports say Japan is preparing to deploy ground-based antimissile defense systems in the country's north, which lies below the North Korean rocket's anticipated flight path.

At the same time, Japan is deploying two warships equipped with antimissile systems to the Sea of Japan.

Too Late To Turn Back

The Japanese moves come as hope is fading fast that any international pressure can persuade Pyongyang to give up its launch plans.

Russia, which has good ties with North Korea, called on Pyongyang to call off the launch. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin said: "The situation now in the North-East Asia region is tense, and it would be better for our partners in North Korea to hold back from this launch.... There is no need for an unnecessary fanning of emotions."

But there is little chance Moscow's last-minute appeal will be heeded.

Pyongyang has reportedly already put a rocket onto one of its launch pads and on March 26 again signaled its determination to go ahead.

A spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry told the country's official media that any attempt to bring the issue of the launch to the United Nations would be a "hostile act."

The spokesman said that in response to such an act, North Korea would break off its participation in the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. Those talks have been suspended December over disagreements on how to verify that Pyongyang is disabling its nuclear facilities as it claims

North Korea's determination to proceed with the launch might be linked to internal politics, especially questions about who will succeed leader Kim Jong-il, according to Aidan Foster-Carter, a leading Korea analyst at Britain's Leeds University.

Foster-Carter noted that Kim reportedly suffered a stroke in August, raising questions about his ability to hold onto power. "It is certainly long overdue for him to appoint someone," he said. "He was unwell last year, and I think they want to fire off a big rocket -- and it may indeed be to launch a satellite, but whether it is or isn't, [it is] just to show how powerful they are. They will do this just before their newly 'elected' parliament -- a Communist style election -- is about to meet, so I think it is for internal reasons."

Military Might

The North Korean regime, which has been unable to feed its citizens for over a decade without UN assistance, has sacrificed everything to its military program.

That makes it necessary to demonstrate its military prowess from time to time, as it tried to do unsuccessfully with the first Taepodong-2 test in 2006 and -- successfully -- with its first nuclear bomb test a few months later, in October 2006.

At the same time, North Korea's sole export and foreign currency earner is its nuclear and missile technology -- giving Pyongyang another reason to periodically demonstrate its technical capabilities.

Foster-Carter says Pyongyang's determination to test its longest-range missile in defiance of global pressure raises questions about the sincerity of its intentions to ultimately give up its greatest military asset -- its nuclear program.

"One has to give the six-party talks the benefit of a doubt, and we might as well call them the six-year talks because that is how long they have been going on," Foster-Carter said. "And it's true, there has been movement, they have shut down definitively, though they have threatened to reopen [the] Yongbyon site where they produced plutonium."

Foster-Carter added that there are hopes that North Korea will follow the example of Libya, which has agreed to give up its nuclear ambitions. But he points out that oil-rich Libya's standing is much different from that of North Korea, which might be reluctant to give up its only bargaining chip -- its nuclear deterrent.

The six-party talks group North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States. The aim is for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for foreign aid.

North Korea remains technically at war with South Korea, since the two states never signed a peace treaty following their 1950-1953 war. Pyongyang, backed by its closest ally China, has remained on military alert against Seoul and its chief ally, the United States, ever since.