SEOUL Japan will clear the way for the deployment of ballistic missile interceptors as it prepares for the possibility a North Korean rocket could fall toward its territory, Kyodo news agency reported on Wednesday.
North Korea has said it intends to launch a satellite between April 4 and 8, presenting a challenge to U.S. President Barack Obama and allies in Asia who see the plan as a disguised long-range missile test.
The plan has alarmed the region and prompted some airlines to say they will alter flight routes during the test period. The reclusive state stunned Tokyo with the launch of a rocket in 1998 that flew over Japan before dropping into the Pacific Ocean.
Japanese law allows the shooting down of dangerous objects falling toward the country, excluding aircraft. The cabinet plans to approve preparatory steps to destroy the rocket if it falls onto Japanese territory, Kyodo said, citing government sources.
South Korea's defense minister said there was a possibility the North would use the intense attention being focused on the missile launch to mount a limited attack across the border to further escalate tension on the Korean peninsula.
The attack could be a naval, air or land strike anywhere along the armed border that divides the Korean peninsula, Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee told parliament in Seoul.
North Korea has said it is putting a communications satellite into orbit, and has the right to do so under its space program. It has said the first stage of the rocket would splash down in the Sea of Japan, while the second would land in the Pacific.
Japanese cabinet approval, which may come by the end of March, would clear the way for the deployment of ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors, Kyodo said.
Cabinet approval is required in Japan, where military activity is strictly limited under its pacifist constitution. A defense ministry spokesman declined to comment.
Japan is also considering deploying two high-tech Aegis-equipped destroyers carrying Standard Missile-3 ballistic missile interceptors, Kyodo added.
The United States, South Korea and Japan have said they see no difference between a satellite launch and a missile test because they use the same rocket, the North's Taepodong-2 with a range that could take it to Alaska.
The North's biggest neighbor and benefactor, China, however, has avoided directly criticizing Pyongyang's rocket launch plan, instead making general calls for greater regional goodwill.
In Beijing, North Korea's visiting Premier Kim Yong-il met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who praised the "friendship" between their countries. Initial reports of their meeting from the official Xinhua news agency did not mention the rocket issue.
The only time the North tested the Taepodong-2 in 2006, it blew apart a few seconds after being fired. Analysts said the North appears to have made technological advances to fix flight problems and is confident of a successful launch.
But analysts do not expect the United States to intercept the rocket because the launch poses no major security threat while destroying it would infuriate Pyongyang. The North has said it would consider any interception an act of war.
TENSIONS OVER FACTORY
Tensions have also festered between North and South Korea over a joint factory park in the North, which has blocked entry to the facility in recent days.
South Korea warned it would respond with decisive action if Pyongyang again blocked access to the factory, but said it was too early to consider shutting the project.
In the past week, the North has blocked movement across the heavily defended border to an industrial park run by South Korean firms in the city of Kaesong out of anger over joint military drills by South Korean and U.S. troops.
"If the North repeats the border traffic suspension after the end of the drills, the government will consider it a very grave situation and will take appropriate measures," Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said in Seoul without elaborating.
The four-day blockade, which was lifted on Tuesday, stranded more than 400 South Korean managers in the Kaesong industrial park and nearly dried up supplies and materials for factories there, casting doubt on the prospects for a project that had been a lucrative source of income for the cash-strapped North.
North Korean anger against the government in Seoul, which ended a decade of no-questions-asked aid to the North a year ago, intensified last week when South Korea and the United States began annual military drills scheduled to end on Friday.
North Korea has also rejected future food aid from the United States, the State Department said on Tuesday. [nN17293000]
It said the North had informed Washington in the past few days of the decision not to accept more U.S. assistance, which would have amounted to about 330,000 tonnes before the end of May. No reason was given for the North's decision.
(Additional reporting by Chisa Fujioka in Tokyo, Sue Pleming in Washington and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Dean Yates)