North Korea’s military threatened on Thursday to attack “major targets” in Japan if Tokyo tries to shoot down a satellite it intends to launch as soon as this weekend.
“If Japan recklessly ‘intercepts´ the DPRK’s (North’s) satellite for peaceful purposes, the KPA will mercilessly deal deadly blows not only at the already deployed intercepting means but at major targets,” said a statement from the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
The communist state insists that no one has the right to block its plan to launch a communications satellite between April 4-8, as part of what it calls a peaceful space programme.
The North has begun fuelling its rocket in a sign it could be in the final stages of a launch as early as this weekend, CNN quoted a senior US military official as saying. There was no immediate confirmation.
The United States and its Asian allies say the North, which has staged two previous long-range missile launches, wants a pretext to test a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile which could in theory reach Alaska or Hawaii.
Japan and the United States have deployed missile-hunting Aegis destroyers to monitor the launch. South Korea has reportedly also sent an Aegis warship.
Tokyo has additionally deployed Patriot guided-missile units on land, and says it will try to bring down the rocket should it start falling toward Japanese territory.
The KPA general staff, in a statement on official media, told the United States “to immediately withdraw its already deployed armed forces if it does not wish to be hurt by the above-said strike.”
The North has previously warned that any interception will mean war.
Recent satellite photos appear to confirm the North has indeed mounted a satellite atop the missile and not a dummy warhead, US experts say.
But South Korea, Japan and the United States say it doesn’t matter what is on top of the rocket -- any launch would breach a UN resolution passed after the North’s 2006 missile launches and underground nuclear test.
“Whether it is a satellite or a missile, the technology is the same,” Seoul’s Defence Minister Lee Sang-Hee told a parliamentary hearing Wednesday.
“Even if it is a satellite, the technology behind it can be converted for use on a missile. That is the view shared by South Korea and the United States.”
Lee and his US counterpart, Robert Gates, held phone talks Thursday and agreed to respond “firmly” to any launch, the defence ministry told AFP, adding that a variety of responses was discussed.
South Korea is “actively considering” taking a full part in the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) if the launch goes ahead, a foreign ministry spokesman said.
The initiative aims to halt ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction and related materials.
The North’s Minju Joson newspaper said any decision by Seoul to join PSI would amount to a “declaration of war.”
Yonhap news agency, quoting a government source, said the North has moved a MiG-23 squadron -- between 12 to 24 planes -- to the northeast, where the Musudan-ri launch site is located. On Wednesday Pyongyang threatened to shoot down US spy planes monitoring the site.
Seoul’s defence ministry declined comment.
South Korea and Japan have agreed to push for a new UN Security Council resolution against North Korea if the launch goes ahead, a senior Seoul official was quoted by Yonhap as saying.
“As far as I know, the US is not opposed to the plan,” the official said.
North Korea has said that even a UN discussion of its launch -- let alone new sanctions -- would trigger the breakdown of international nuclear disarmament talks.
UN resolutions bar Pyongyang from missile-related activities.
However, the North signed on to international space treaties before its launch. Analysts believe China and Russia would block any new sanctions move on the grounds that previous resolutions do not cover satellite launches.