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US watching North Korea missile activity from Japan

File photo of US airmen at Misawa Air Base, Japan. US defence department photo

TOKYO (BNS): Ahead of likely launch of a long-range missile Taepodong-2 missile by North Korea that could strike US territory, the US military is closely monitoring activities from the Misawa Air Base in Japan. US officials did not provide any details of the activities across the border.

Last week, North Korea said that it would launch a communications satellite into orbit, but neighbouring nations believe the satellite may be a cover for a missile launch and have warned the regime not to carry out any ‘provocative’ actions. Satellite images reveal brisk activity at a launch pad in North Korea’s northeast, according to analysts.

Maj James Crawford, a spokesman for the US Army in Japan, said on Tuesday, that the US Army forces in Japan are vigilant and capable of defending Japan from any threat, including ballistic missiles. “We are working closely with our Japanese allies,” Crawford said.

Sankei newspaper reported that North Korea was timing the missile launch when the South Korean army and US will conduct joint military exercises between March 9 and March 20.

Media reports said that Japan, which is within easy range of the North's arsenal, has long been anxious about missile activity from North Korea, which in 1998 launched a long-range ballistic missile over its main island and well into the Pacific, almost reaching Alaska.

It is said that since then, Japan and the US are working jointly on ballistic missile defence and have built a multi-billion dollar ballistic missile shield that includes interceptor missiles both onboard ships at sea and Patriot missile units that ring Tokyo and are also positioned on the island of Okinawa — where more than half of the 50,000 US troops in Japan are deployed.

According to officials, Misawa is a front-line station for monitoring North Korean activity. “If the US military satellites detect a flash of heat from a missile range in North Korea, within seconds computers at the base can plot a rough trajectory,” they said.

Analysts say North Korea is trying to draw President Barack Obama's attention as Washington is formulating its North Korea policy as international disarmament talks remain on hold. Obama's envoy on North Korea is heading to the region for talks with his counterparts to the nuclear talks.

Meanwhile, Kyodo news agency reported that Tokyo is considering deploying both its ballistic missile interceptor warships in the Sea of Japan ahead of a possible test launch of North Korea's longest-range missile. Japan will send two naval destroyers with high-tech Aegis radar systems and Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors to the Sea of Japan, between Japan and the Korean peninsula, if it becomes clear that North Korea is launching a missile.

Japanese media reported Prime Minister Taro Aso as saying that Tokyo should be able to use its missile defence capabilities even if North Korea insists that it is launching a satellite.

In 2006, North Korea test-fired a long-range missile, which failed. In the same year, it conducted its first nuclear test - but is believed to have made improvements in its missile capabilities.

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