TOKYO – Japan may deploy land- and sea-based interceptor missiles ahead of North Korea's planned rocket launch next month and has not ruled out shooting down the rocket if it violates Japanese airspace, according to defense officials and media reports.
Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka said Wednesday that Japan is considering how to respond to any contingencies caused by the launch, including mobilizing destroyers and deploying mobile missile launchers to areas near the rocket's planned trajectory.
North Korea has said it plans to launch a satellite into orbit. Japan, the United States and other countries claim it is also seeking to test the capabilities of its long-range missiles, in violation of international agreements.
The "Unha-3" rocket is expected to fly over western Japan -- including parts of Okinawa -- after it is launched from a pad on North Korea's west coast between April 14-16. That has raised concerns that a failed launch, or a falling stage of the rocket, could endanger Japanese lives or property.
Tanaka said the details of the deployments are now being worked out and refused to comment further.
But defense officials and media reports suggest Japan is likely to send three AEGIS-equipped destroyers to the Pacific and East China Sea and deploy mobile missile launchers to islands in Okinawa that are near the rocket's trajectory.
"We are considering mobilizing PAC-3 missiles to Okinawa Island, or to Ishigaki or Sakishima islands, to defend our country against any contingencies," Vice Defense Minister Shu Watanabe said Tuesday. The PAC-3 is an advanced Patriot missile.
Earlier this week, Tanaka said Tokyo has not ruled out the possibility of shooting down the rocket if it is deemed a threat and violates Japanese airspace. Japan mobilized its interceptor units and issued a similar warning to North Korea before a rocket launch in 2009, but did not follow through.
Interceptor missiles on the Japanese destroyers would serve as the first line of defense, and the land-based Patriot missiles would be a backup. Japan has successfully tested its interceptor missiles, but has never used them in a real-world situation.