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North Korea

How dangerous is North Korea's latest satellite launch plan?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un salutes during a visit to the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces on the occasion of the new year, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un salutes during a visit to the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces on the occasion of the new year, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency Reuters/KCNA

Japan on Wednesday threatened to shoot down any missile that threatens its territory following North Korea announcement that it is preparing to launch an Earth observation satellite. The US, South Korea and China have also slammed the declaration. But how serious is the threat?

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Ever since North Korea bragged about the "spectacular success" of its first hydrogen bomb test nearly a month ago, the international community has been struggling to come up with a united response.

This time North Korea says its satellite programme is "peaceful", but the operation would inevitably involve using a long-range missile, which falls under a United Nations ban.

Both Japan and South Korea have reacted strongly to the news.

"This is not talk," says Aidan Foster-Carter, an expert on modern Korea at Britain's Leeds University." They would not put themselves out there, being such a secretive regime and doing much else by stealth. I expect to see this."

The launch would be "no mean technological achievement", he added. "Over the last 25 years North Korea has consistently been building both a nuclear capacity and a means to deliver it and every step brings them a bit closer."

Map of North and South Korea
Anthony Terrade/RFI

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called the move a “serious provocation”, insisting that Pyongyang is using the launch as an excuse to test its ballistic missile capability. 

In reaction, Japan’s Defence Minister Gen Nakatani has already ordered the deployment of destroyers in the Sea of Japan and Patriot missile batteries on land.

But, until its American ally decides on a course of action, it remains unsure whether Japan can do anything to stop the launch, as Sebastian Harnisch from the University of Heidelberg explains.

"Japan's behaviour as an ally of the United States depends heavily on where the US stand," he points out. "Japan will not act unilaterally against the missile launch."

Last summer the Japanese parliament passed two controversial laws that would allow its forces to fight overseas for the first time since World War II .

It has also boosted its naval forces, to counter any threat from China or North Korea.

But Harnisch says that, based on the country's previous behaviour, it is unlikely that Japan will act militarily:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is a victim of its own tough rhetoric", he says. "Some parts of the public will call for action because of the prevous tough talk but a majority of the population is not ready to take tough, unilateral, military action against North Korea."

A fresh launch poses a dilemma for the rst of the world, which is already divided on how to punish North Korea for its previous nuclear tests.

The US, South Korea and Japan have been following a hard line but Pyongyang's diplomatic ally, China, has been resisting the US push for tougher sanctions.

A new missile launch could encourage Beijing to bring its neighbour into line, according to Foster-Carter.

"You could say that North Korea has decided to help the rest of the world by offering an economy package of condemnation," he says.

If the international community is to do anything to halt North Korea's satellite program, it will have to take action quickly.

Analysts say the launch is most likely to take place on 16 February, the birthday of Kim Jong-Il, father of current leader Kim Jong-Un.

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