Japan has launched its first ever spy satellites to improve its surveillance of the region, including unpredictable North Korea.
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News Online
With around 100 Rodong-1 missiles reportedly deployed in North Korea, capable of striking anywhere in Japan, and tensions on the Korean peninsula rising by the day, Tokyo has good reason to want to further its knowledge of the North's behaviour.
The first two satellites - one optical, and one radar - were launched aboard an H-2A rocket at Japan's space centre on southern Tanegashima island. If all goes to plan, two more launches are expected before March 2004.
All four satellites will cost a total of about 250 billion yen ($2.05bn) and will orbit the earth at a height of 400-600 kilometres (250-370 miles). They are expected to be usable for five years. The optical satellite will be able to detect objects of just one metre (three feet) across.
Japanese officials have stressed that the satellites are
not to be used solely for spying on the North, noting that, for example, they can also be used to monitor major natural disasters.
But they can be used to watch for suspicious activity such as incursions by North Korean spy ships, or signs of work on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.
North Korea has strongly protested against Japan's plans to launch the satellites, arguing that this is a sign of the country's growing militarism.
Japanese intelligence has indicated that North Korea may respond with a ballistic missile test.
But the president of Japan's National Space Development Agency (Nasda), Shuichiro Yamanouchi, has said that North Korea has no reason to be worried, because satellite pictures of the region are already freely available.
Japan currently buys commercial satellite photos from the US and France.
North Korea's launch of a Taepodong-1 ballistic missile over Japan in 1998, however, served as a wake-up call.
"It really shocked the Japanese. They realised that they've got to wake up and not be 100% reliant on the US," Victor Cha, professor of government and Asian studies at Washington DC's Georgetown University told BBC News Online.
Masashi Nisihara, president of Japan's National Defence Academy, said "The idea (of the satellites) has been on the table for some time, but the '98 launch of North Korea's Taepodong stimulated that decision."
Mr Yamanouchi admitted earlier this month: "It's a kind of technological independence. Information independence. For the Japanese it's very important."
The quality of the pictures they will produce is said to be inferior to that already bought from Japan by the US.
There is a suggestion that Nasda is not only aiming for independent surveillance capability, but to boost its drastically depleted coffers.
Its budget was cut by 12% to $1.4bn last year, compounding losses incurred by failed launches of four successive satellites in 1998 and 1999.
Mr Cha said that the satellite industry "is a very lucrative business, so almost certainly there was a commercial consideration, but I think the proximate cause were the measures taken by North Korea".
It remains to be seen whether increasing Japan's surveillance of the North will result in yet more threatening behaviour from its neighbour.