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Satellite launch angers N. Korea

Japan's H-2A rocket lifts off.
Japan's H-2A rocket lifts off.

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TANEGASHIMA, Japan (Reuters) -- Japan sent two spy satellites into orbit on Friday, infuriating heavily armed neighbor North Korea, whose firing of a missile over Japan in 1998 prompted the move.

Pyongyang denounced the launch, which will give Tokyo its first independent opportunity to scrutinize North Korea from space, as a "hostile act" that could set off an arms race in the region.

"The satellite launch deprived Japan of any justification and qualification to talk about the DPRK's (North Korea's) satellite launch," said a foreign ministry statement carried on the state-run KCNA news agency.

"Japan will be held wholly responsible for sparking a new arms race in Northeast Asia," it added.

The satellite deployment was planned after Pyongyang's 1998 firing of a Taepodong ballistic missile, which passed over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean. North Korea said that the missile launch was aimed at putting a satellite of its own into orbit.

Japan remains nervous after North Korea's recent launch of two short-range missiles, although the Defense Ministry said there was no sign on Friday another launch was imminent.

CIA Director George Tenet told a U.S. Senate committee last month that North Korea had a missile that could reach the U.S. West Coast, but a senior U.S. defense official said the weapon had not been tested.

Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba told South Korea's JoongAng Daily newspaper in an interview published on Friday that Pyongyang was unlikely to have the United States in its sights.

"The North's missiles are not likely to be able to reach the continental United States," he said.

"Neither are they likely to be aimed at the people of South Korea, with whom North Korea shares a heritage. That leaves Japan as the target."

Some analysts had expressed concern that Pyongyang could respond to Japan's satellite launch by firing one of its Rodong ballistic missiles, which are capable of reaching Japan, to grab international attention back from Iraq.

Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, implied such a reaction would be unjustified.

"Other countries do this [launch satellites]," he told reporters. "It is not as though we are doing it to gather information on another country for an attack."

The region has been jittery since Washington said in October that North Korea had admitted to a secret nuclear weapons programme. Pyongyang has since taken a number of provocative steps including firing two short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan.

Rocket boost

The sight of the H-2A launch rocket trailing a white plume through a cloudless sky above the launch site on the tiny island of Tanegashima, 1,000 km (620 miles) southwest of Tokyo was a welcome boost for Japan's satellite launch programme.

The programme is to be taken over from the public sector by the main manufacturer of the H-2A, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, in two years.

Confidence in the space programme was severely damaged by two successive failures in 1998 and 1999.

Japan plans to launch two more spy satellites, manufactured by Mitsubishi Electric Corp, later in the year in a 250 billion yen ($2 billion) project.

The project has been criticized, however, as offering little more information than can already be gained from commercial surveillance services. The optical satellite can detect objects one meter (3 feet) in diameter, making it significantly inferior to U.S. military satellites in terms of resolution.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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