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Japan readies spy satellites

A satellite image shows N. Korea's suspected nuclear plant at Yongbyon.
A satellite image shows N. Korea's suspected nuclear plant at Yongbyon.

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TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- Japan is keeping its space centre under close guard as it prepares to launch its first two spy satellites amid simmering tensions with North Korea, the head of the Japanese space agency said on Monday.

Minutes before he spoke, Pyongyang fired a surface-to-ship missile towards the Sea of Japan for the second time in weeks, in a reminder of Tokyo's reasons for keeping a close eye on its heavily armed communist neighbour.

Japan's National Space Development Agency (NASDA) is to put two intelligence satellites into orbit on March 28 and another two in the middle of the year under plans drawn up after Pyongyang's 1998 test firing of a ballistic missile that passed through Japanese airspace and landed in the Pacific Ocean.

"The government is very sensitive about security and has even asked NASDA to increase security," NASDA's Shuichiro Yamanouchi told a news conference in Tokyo.

The launch this month, which will put one optical satellite and one radar satellite into orbit, is to take place under a veil of secrecy at the space centre on the island of Tanegashima, about 1,000 km (620 miles) southwest of Tokyo.

A spokesman at the agency confirmed that security had been stepped up in the area in cooperation with the police and coast guard, but declined to give details.

The agency normally distributes television pictures of rocket launches but will not do so this time, the spokesman said.

Despite speculation that North Korea might protest against the launch by firing another missile, Yamaouchi said he did not expect a strong reaction from Pyongyang, partly because satellite pictures of the region were already freely available.

"Japan can easily buy images of North Korea by paying a private company," he said. "Unfortunately the performance of the next satellite is the same level as commercial satellites."

The optical spy satellite will be able to detect objects that are one metre (3 ft) across or more. U.S. military satellites are thought to offer far better resolution.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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