North Korea's Missiles: Feeling the Shock in Japan

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Its soccer team's likely elimination from the World Cup is not the only thing putting Japan on edge these days. Mounting evidence that North Korea may be preparing to test-fire a missile has shaken the country far more seriously. On Sunday night, Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Aso said during an evening talk show that Japan would consider imposing economic sanctions immediately, and request that the U.N. Security Council take action, if North Korea decided to test a missile. Any test would violate a voluntary North Korean moratorium on long-range missile tests, Aso said, adding that protest from Japan would be "very vehement."

Aso's statements came after days of speculation over North Korean's nuclear weapons and missile development programs. According to South Korean and Japanese news reports over the weekend that cited unnamed diplomatic sources in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, North Korea has apparently fueled numerous booster rockets capable of launching a Taepodong-2 missile in the country's northeast. The Taepodong-2 is believed to possess a range capable of hitting Alaska. U.S. and Japanese government spokesmen have both warned North Korea not to conduct a test. White House spokesman Tony Snow told CNN on Sunday that if North Korea goes ahead with a test, "then we will have to respond properly and appropriately at the time," though he declined to elaborate. Meanwhile, John Bolton, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said that members of the U.N. Security Council were holding preliminary consultations on possible action.

Japan would find a test particularly provocative. In 1998, North Korea tested a shorter-range Taepodong-1 missile, part of which fell in Japanese waters. That test shocked Japan, and was a powerful impetus for the government to increase its intelligence efforts, missile defenses and military cooperation with the United States. More recently, Japan has been frustrated by North Korea's refusal to provide information about perhaps dozens of Japanese citizens the hermit kingdom abducted throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In Japan, the emotional issue of abducted citizens has become almost as large an issue as North Korea's nuclear ambitions. In the past few years, Japan has passed several laws that would make financial sanctions on North Korea easier to implement, and Aso said that "many possible sanctions are on the table," including restricting financial transfers and ferry travel between the two countries.