Japan's defence minister has ordered the deployment of land-to-air and sea-to-air missiles to northern Japan. These missile interceptors are to protect Japan against a North Korean rocket launch expected during the coming days. North Korea, for its part, keeps saying that it will launch a communications satellite between April 4-8, and has designated waters off northern Japan as a risk zone for falling fragments from the rocket.
Japan's Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada speaking to reporters about North Korea on Friday
According to the US government, North Korea has already deployed a long-range missile ready for takeoff. South Korea's "Chosun Ilbo" newspaper reported, based on statements by a Seoul government official and US satellite images, that technically the missile launch could actually happen within the next three or four days.
Political and business motives
Oliver Thränert, an expert on North Korea at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, thinks it's plausible that North Korea will test-fire a long-range ballistic missile:
"It is quite possible, given that we have seen several North Korean attempts in this field. The North Koreans have been working on multistage ballistic missiles for some time. And politically, too, I think it is quite likely that North Korea will want to attract the attention of the new Obama administration in the US. North Korea doesn't want the Americans to focus only on Iran and other hotspots in international politics."
Beyond the political motives, North Korea also stands to profit financially from its medium and long-range missiles, for example by exporting them, says Thränert.
"In the past, we have seen them closely cooperating with Pakistan and Iran. I assume that North Korea wants to sell its multistage missiles in the future. But for that to happen, of course, you first have to prove that they work."
Previous test failed
Back in July 2006, North Korea first launched a rocket of the "Taepodong 2" type from its east coast. The range of this kind of missile extends up to the US state of Alaska. But according to the US that test in 2006 failed. Now the US, South Korea and Japan believe that the Communist regime in Pyongyang wants to test another "Taepodong 2" missile or perhaps an improved version with even greater reach.
How dangerous are North Korea's military ambitions for the region and the world? "You have to see this complex together with their nuclear programme," Thränert says. "Do they have the ability to put nuclear weapons on their missiles? For this you need miniaturised nuclear weapons. We don't know if they have them. But we know they've been working on nuclear weapons. And combined with a missile programme there is a potential threat there, of course, particularly for immediate neighbours, especially Japan."
A UN resolution from 2006 forbids North Korea to carry out ballistic missile tests. That's another reason why Pyongyang's alleged plans have met with so much international criticism. Even China, North Korea's only ally and host to the so-called Six Party Talks, has been expressing its concerns and has tried to discourage Pyongyang from going through with the test - but in vain. Japan is now preparing to intercept parts of the missile falling on its territory. Pyongyang already said that shooting down the missile itself would be taken as a "declaration of war", and its forces were ready to retaliate with "adequate measures".