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Japan Launches Third Spy Satellite to Watch Over North Korea

11 September 2006

Japan has launched its third spy satellite into orbit. Like the first two, this one is intended primarily to monitor activities in North Korea.

Prior to 1998, Japan had held back on intelligence gathering from space. It was worried about violating its pacifist constitution, and relied instead on information from U.S. spy satellites.

But North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan in 1998, and the mood here changed. The Japanese government began its own spy satellite program to watch over its unpredictable neighbor.

Those same concerns were in evidence Monday afternoon as Japan launched its third spy satellite. There have been signs that North Korea might be preparing to test-fire more missiles, as it did in early July, or to set off a test nuclear explosion.

The Japanese satellite went into orbit aboard a rocket launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan. The launch had been scheduled for Sunday, but was delayed because of weather conditions.

Government officials say the optical satellite will give Japan the ability to monitor any point on the planet once a day. Japanese satellites have lower resolution than the U.S. versions, but reportedly can still see items that are quite small.

Kenneth Quinones, a former North Korea expert with the U.S. State Department, says Japan has good reason to be concerned about North Korea's nuclear activities.

"The United States is not the target," Quinones says. "It's here, Japan. You've got U.S. military bases here. You've got the world economy here, world communications. You want to shake up the international community, aim for Tokyo, or anyplace in Japan."

Reports that North Korea might be preparing to detonate a nuclear weapon are only speculative, but Washington and other governments have warned against any such test.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill is in charge of the stalled negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear programs. In China on Monday, Hill said a North Korean nuclear test would be "a very provocative act."

However, Kenneth Quinones, now head of global studies at Japan's Akita International University, advises against putting too much pressure on the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il. Quinones says Kim has to meet the expectations of his own generals, and predicts Pyongyang will become even more aggressive if pushed too hard.

"The more the international pressures you assert on Kim Jong Il, the more prone he is to act exactly as you don't want him to," Quinones says. "He has got to show his generals that he is just as brave as his father and that he is not going to bow to us, the 'imperialists."

Quinones suggests that Washington should let Beijing take the lead in negotiating with the North Koreans. China, he notes, has two thousand years of experience in dealing with its neighbor.

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