TOKYO - Japan is deploying guided-missile destroyers and antiaircraft batteries with orders to shoot down a North Korean rocket if it falls toward Japanese territory, Japan’s defense minister said Friday.
The move appears to ratchet up the tensions surrounding the launch of what North Korea says is a rocket carrying a satellite but which the United States and its allies fear is actually a test of a long-range ballistic missile. North Korea appears to be readying the rocket despite international calls to cancel the launch, which appears likely to occur between April 12 and April 16.
North Korea outraged Washington and its allies this month, saying it would launch a rocket to put a satellite in orbit in April. The United States demanded that North Korea cancel the launch, which it said would be in violation of a UN Security Council resolution adopted in 2009 to stop North Korea’s long-range missile technology.
The Japanese defense minister, Naoki Tanaka, said the orders were intended to protect Japanese lives and property if part or all of the rocket, which is expected to fly over western Japan, goes off course. North Korea has said the upper stage of the rocket will pass over Japan and land in international waters east of the Philippines.
Seoul has also vowed to shoot down the rocket if it endangers South Korean territory.
Tanaka said Japan took similar precautions the last time North Korea test fired a long-range rocket over its territory, in 2009.
“We want to be fully prepared for something coming down in our territory,’’ he told reporters.
The Defense Ministry said Japan’s military will deploy Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries in Okinawa, where the North Korean missile is expected to pass over, and also in Tokyo. In addition, Japan will dispatch three Aegis-equipped guided-missile destroyers, which can intercept ballistic missiles in flight.
The ships would be the first line of defense, firing while the target was still in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. If they miss, the Patriot batteries would try to destroy the target before it reaches earth.
The warning from Tokyo came as South Korean news media reported that North Korea fired several short-range missiles off its west coast this week.
North Korea launched two KN-01 short-range surface-to-ship missiles, modified from the Chinese Silkworm missile, on Thursday, several South Korean newspapers reported, quoting anonymous military sources.
Another newspaper reported that North Korea fired two missiles of the same type Wednesday afternoon.
South Korea’s Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff said it could not confirm the reports, citing its policy of not commenting on intelligence matters.
North Korea regularly test-fires its short-range missiles. Its military has been conducting its annual war games in recent days, South Korean officials said.