Diplomats engaged in a flurry of behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade North Korea to cancel a rocket launch as the isolated regime pressed ahead with final preparations for a lift-off as early as tomorrow.
North Korea says it will send a communications satellite into orbit, but the US, South Korea and Japan believe the reclusive country is using the launch to test long-range missile technology – a move they have warned would violate a United Nations Security Council resolution banning the North from ballistic activity.
“What is most important is to continue to make diplomatic efforts, concerted efforts, not only Japan, but all countries who have relationships and interests” with North Korea, Yukio Takasu, Japan’s UN ambassador, said in New York.
Even China, the North’s closest ally, said it was working to avert the launch, while urging restraint from all parties to avoid aggravating an already-tense situation. Chinese President Hu Jintao specifically called for calm from Japan.
After the North has said the rocket’s route would take it over Japanese territory and that some debris could fall off its northern coast, Tokyo set in motion a flurry of preparations.
It has deployed warships with anti-missile systems to the area, set up Patriot missile interceptors and established a system to warn residents when the rocket is approaching.
Japan says it has no intention of trying to shoot down the rocket itself, which is expected to reach its territory within 10 minutes of the launch.
“It is a threat to the security of Japan,” Mr Takasu said, adding that North Korea’s latest provocation had “caused serious anxiety” and “raises tensions in our region, and also internationally”.
Japanese prime minister Taro Aso told reporters in London yesterday that a Saturday launch was likely and a senior US intelligence official said Pyongyang was on track for lift-off then, with pre-launch movements similar to the steps taken before its 2006 firing of a Taepodong-2 missile.
If the launch does proceed, Japan and other nations plan to request an emergency session of the security council as soon as this weekend to discuss possible punishment.
North Korea has condemned in advance any efforts to censure it, claiming it has the right to the peaceful use of space, although military experts say the same technology could be used to launch ballistic missiles capable of reaching US territory.
Pyongyang is believed to have several nuclear warheads; it is unclear if it has been able to miniaturise them enough to mount on a missile.
It also has upped its militaristic rhetoric, threatening a “thunderbolt of fire” if Japan were to try to intercept the rocket and warning US ships - dispatched to monitor the launch – to back off or risk getting hit, too.
The issue was top of the agenda when US president Barack Obama met his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, on the sidelines of the G20 summit.
The White House said they agreed on the need for “a unified response by the international community” if the launch occurred and also discussed the North’s worrisome nuclear weapons programme.
While Russia appeared to be edging closer to Washington’s position in an apparent show of goodwill, a strong united response likely would prove difficult given that China has veto power in the security council.