Japan red-faced over mistaken N.Korean rocket report

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s government apologized on Saturday for mistakenly announcing that North Korea had launched a rocket, as the nation’s military remained on alert for the expected move by Tokyo’s secretive communist neighbor.

North Korea has said it would launch a communications satellite between April 4-8 between 10:00 p.m. EDT to 3:00 p.m. EDT.

The United States, South Korea and Japan say the launch is a disguised test of the Taepodong-2 missile designed to carry a warhead capable of reaching Alaska and violates U.N. resolutions.

“We caused a great deal of trouble to the Japanese people. This was a mistake in the transmission of information by the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces,” Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters, using the formal name for Japan’s military. “I want to apologize to the people from my heart.”

The mishap could be an embarrassment for Prime Minister Taro Aso’s administration, which is struggling with low support rates ahead of an election that must be held by October.

A fundraising scandal plaguing the main opposition leader has given Aso and his ruling party a bit of a boost, but his public ratings are still only around 25 percent.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura also apologized for the error, which he said originated after Japanese military radar had detected “some sort of flight path.”

But he dismissed any suggestion that the mistake would affect Aso’s public support, which has been undermined by a series of gaffes and policy flip-flops since he took office last September.

“The people are the most interested in how we will deal with a projectile from tomorrow,” Kawamura told reporters.

“We are strongly urging (the North) to refrain from launching a projectile which will hurt peace and stability in the Asia region, as it is against the (U.N.) Security Council resolution. This stance of the government remains unchanged.”

Japan has deployed land and sea-based missile interceptors and ordered its military to shoot down any dangerous debris that threatens to fall on its territory if the rocket launch goes amiss, although officials say such a scenario is unlikely.

Kyodo news agency said the mistaken report occurred after data picked up by the Japanese military’s ground-based radar was conveyed to the air force, then mistaken for an early warning of a satellite launch from the U.S. military and passed along to the government’s crisis management center.

Reporting by Linda Sieg and Tetsushi Kajimoto