By Doug Struck
The Washington Post
TOKYO â€” Japan is preparing to launch two spy satellites tomorrow under tight security that would mark the country's first military use of space and begin moving its intelligence agencies away from dependence on the United States.
The decision to launch the satellites that analysts said will focus on North Korea and China, results from Japan's dissatisfaction with periodic restrictions the United States places on sharing satellite intelligence and delays in notifying Japan's top officials of a 1998 missile launch by North Korea.
Sources differ on who was at fault â€” Japan or the United States â€” in the hours-long delay before Tokyo found out a North Korean ballistic missile had soared over Japan on Aug. 31, 1998. But two months later, the Japanese government approved a program to put four satellites into orbit this year, with more to follow.
The program has taken Japan another step away from the pacifist constitution that in theory prohibits the country from having a military and from a 1969 pledge that Japan's space program would be only for "peaceful, nonmilitary" use. But with the slow pace of the steps, and with Japan worrying more about North Korea's attempts to acquire nuclear weapons and the growing power of China, there has been little public outcry.
Images from the satellites will not be as sharp as those from U.S. satellites. At a resolution of about 1 yard, the optical images are the same quality as those available from commercial satellites. But Japan will collect the information exclusively and have "shutter control" of the satellites.
"This is a first step for Japan to obtain means to get information on its own," said Gen Nakatani, who headed Japan's Defense Agency until September. "Japan should move away from being totally reliant on the U.S." He said the system would be upgraded with additional satellites and better resolution.
The first two satellites, one containing an optical sensor and the other a radar system that can peer through the dark and clouds, are scheduled for launch by a Japanese rocket from Tanegashima Island in the Pacific Ocean.
If all goes according to plan, each will orbit about 300 miles up, passing over any location on Earth once each day. The optical satellite can take color images of objects larger than about 15 feet and black-and-white images of items 3 feet in diameter.
Authorities have sidestepped whether the satellites violate a parliamentary resolution and the space agency's charter prohibiting military use of space. The government said the satellite program is directed by a Cabinet office, not the Defense Agency, and the images will provide nonmilitary information for other ministries.
But critics aren't satisfied with such statements. "I'm against launching those satellites," said Eiji Miyagawa, head of a peace group based in the city of Fukuoka. "Whatever reasoning they give, the satellites' objective is to spy, which is a military action."
North Korea harshly criticized the impending launch, describing it as a "hostile act" that poses a "grave threat." It also warned that the launch might release it from a pledge it made to Japan in September not to test-fire missiles.
In addition to North Korea, the satellites will probably surveil China, a growing regional rival, Japanese experts said.
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