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Asia

Northeast Asia braces for potential N. Korean rocket launch

Just weeks after North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test, attention is now focused on whether Pyongyang will launch a rocket, a move that would further heighten regional tensions. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

In the grounds of Japan's Ministry of Defense, located at the heart of Tokyo, a battery of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 surface-to-air missiles is pointed at the sky. While the stationing of such weapons in the megacity is more a demonstration of Japan's resolve than a meaningful last line of defense, the 33 other Patriot units deployed across northern and eastern Japan, as well as Aegis destroyers equipped with the Standard Missile-3 interceptor system in the Sea of Japan, may well be called into action should North Korea go ahead with plans to launch a missile.

And all the signs are that Pyongyang is preparing to fire what it is likely to claim is a rocket carrying a satellite, and that the regime has a sovereign right to conduct the exploration and exploitation of space.

A disguised missile test?

Those claims cut little ice with analysts, however, who point out that the North's rockets are indistinguishable from missiles and that the technology required to launch and guide such vehicles is equally similar.

Nordkorea TV Berichterstattung Südkorea zu Atomtest

North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test in early January

"The government here is expecting the North to go ahead with a launch, but it is obvious that it is a missile test, no matter what Pyongyang claims," said Rah Jong-yil, a former head of South Korean intelligence and an expert on the regime in Pyongyang.

"At the moment, Seoul is calm but people are watching events carefully," he told DW. "They are expecting another provocation from the North - but, even when it comes, there is not much that can be done."There will be strong words from Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and Washington, of course, but what can the rest of the world really do beyond that?" he asked.

Satellite imagery indicates that preparations for a launch are underway at the Sohae satellite launching facility, in Tongchang-ri in the far north-west of North Korea. Transporter vehicles have been identified at the site, along with workers. There are also leaked reports of freight trains leaving factories involved in manufacturing the North's missiles and heading for the Sohea site.

Intelligence officials remain in the dark, however, as engineers in the North have curtained off the gantry that is likely to be used to launch the missile. Activities detected at the site in recent years suggest that it is now possible to fuel a rocket from underground tanks and without arousing suspicion.

Those developments mean that North Korea could launch the vehicle with very little warning - in much the same way as it did in early January when it carried out its fourth underground nuclear test. That detonation, which Pyongyang insists was a successful test of a thermonuclear weapon, came completely out of the blue to neighboring nations.

No sanctions agreement

And nearly one month later, the nations that condemned the nuclear test have still not been able to reach an agreement on meaningful sanctions against Pyongyang. China, in particular, has expressed its opposition to a punishment that could potentially destabilize Kim Jong Un's government.

Should Pyongyang now up the ante even further with the launch of a long-range missile, then pressure will grow on Beijing to rein in its neighbor and ally - although that alliance has become increasingly frayed in recent years.

"This is yet more saber-rattling by North Korea as it attempts to extort concessions from China, South Korea, Japan and the US," said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor in the department of politics and international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University.

"They fear the rapprochement between South Korea and Japan, they are losing the support of Beijing - if they haven't lost it already - and they want North Korea to be back on the map and to show that they are significant player in the region," he said.

The options they have for doing that are limited to acts of provocation, Nagy said, as internal reforms or reaching out to other nations "could very easily cause the regime to implode."

Chinese leverage

And while the analyst agrees that China remains the only power with any sort of leverage over North Korea, Nagy still believes that even the test launch of a long-range missile capable of striking the continental United States would not be enough for Beijing to act decisively.

"There are a lot of ethnic Koreans in northeast China and Beijing fears unrest, as well as a possible flood of refugees emerging from North Korea in the event of the regime collapsing," he said. "From a geopolitical standpoint, they are also concerned about a reunited Korean Peninsula under the leadership of South Korea and allied with the United States."

And North Korea, he points out, is completely aware of this situation and is able to make Beijing dance to its tune.

Xi Jinping in Südkorea 03.07.2014 Seoul

Analyst says China remains the only power with leverage over North Korea

As an added level of concern, analysts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the US have suggested that North Korea has collaborated with Iran on a new rocket booster that might be tested.

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the program, noted in a posting on the Arms Control Wonk blog that the height of the launch gantry at Sohae has been raised, and that state propaganda has made reference to the Unha-9.

The Unha-9 may turn out to be a powerful new missile, with an 80-ton rocket booster that is being tested for both North Korea and Iran, he added.