TOKYO Japan deployed two ballistic missile destroyers to the Sea of Japan on Saturday to intercept any dangerous debris in the event that a controversial missile launch planned by North Korea goes wrong, defense officials said.
Pyongyang has said it would launch a communications satellite between April 4-8 that regional powers believe will actually be a test of its long-range missile, the Taepodong-2, which is already believed to be on its launch pad at a North Korean missile base.
On Saturday morning, Japan deployed destroyers equipped with Standard Missile-3 interceptors to the Sea of Japan, which lies between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago, a Defense Ministry official said.
The destroyers are also equipped with sophisticated Aegis combat radar systems.
A third Aegis-equipped defense ship left another base for the Pacific Ocean, where the missile is expected to land, the official said.
The United States, Japan's main security ally, is set to deploy two Aegis-equipped ships with missile defense capabilities from the South Korean port of Busan on Monday, a U.S. military official said on Saturday.
The official would not disclose their destination or mission.
NORTH KOREAN WARNING
North Korea has given international agencies notice that the rocket's planned trajectory should take it over Japan, dropping booster stages to its east and west. Any attempt to shoot the rocket itself down would be an act of war, Pyongyang has said.
Japan's constitution does not allow it to intercept a missile if it is clearly heading elsewhere.
Regional powers Japan, South Korea and the United States have pledged to punish Pyongyang if it goes ahead with the launch, condemning the act as a violation of U.N. resolutions imposed on the hermit state for earlier weapons tests.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso repeated his criticism of the planned launch.
"They're launching a missile and calling it a 'rocket'. Nowhere else in the world will you find a country that will launch a test missile squarely over someone else's country," Kyodo News quoted Aso as saying in western Japan on Saturday.
In its only previous test flight in 2006, the Taepodong-2 either blew up or was deliberately destroyed after failing seconds after it was launched.
Japanese officials say the chances that debris will fall on its territory are slim and have called on the public not to panic.
On Friday, Japan took the unprecedented step of authorizing its military to be ready to shoot down any parts of the rocket that threatened to fall on its territory.
Ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors were deployed, with units leaving Iruma air base northwest of Tokyo to be positioned closer to the political and financial centers of the capital.
Top nuclear envoys from Japan, South Korea and the United States were to meet in Washington on Friday in a sign of growing concern over the launch, which would be the first big test for U.S. President Barack Obama in dealing with the prickly North.
Russia has said North Korea should abstain from testing the rocket, calling for dialogue with Pyongyang.
(Additional reporting by Cheon Jong-woo in SEOUL; Editing by Paul Tait)