TOKYO—Japan deployed its Patriot missile defense system on Saturday after North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles over the country towards the US Pacific territory of Guam, local officials and reports said.
Regional tensions are mounting as Washington and Pyongyang ratchet up their war of words, with President Donald Trump warning Pyongyang would “truly regret” any hostile action against the US.
Japan has in the past vowed to shoot down North Korean missiles or rockets that threaten to hit its territory.
The defense ministry deployed the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system in Shimane, Hiroshima and Kochi in western Japan, which North Korea had warned could be along its missiles’ flight path, public broadcaster NHK and Kyodo News said.
Meanwhile, recent satellite photos suggest North Korea could be preparing for fresh submarine-based ballistic missile tests, an expert on its military said.
Joseph Bermudez, a specialist in North Korean defense and intelligence affairs, posted photographs on the authoritative 38 North blog of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University which he said could show preparations for a test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
“Recent commercial satellite imagery reveals several developments suggesting that North Korea may be accelerating the development of the sea-based leg of its nuclear forces,” he said.
Activity on a SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine at the Mayang-do navy shipyard and submarine base, he said, suggested “that the North may be preparing for a new series of ‘at sea’ test launches, has undertaken modifications or upgrades to the submarine’s launch systems, or is developing a more advanced version of the Pukguksong-1.”
The Pukguksong-1 is an SLBM that was first successfully test-launched on Aug. 24, 2016.
That missile flew 500 kms (300 miles) towards Japan, which leader Kim Jong-Un said at the time put the US mainland within striking range from a Pacific-based submarine.
Bermudez said the preparations at the submarine in recent weeks matched those ahead of previous tests.
The preparations come amid a tense escalation of threats between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s recent gains in nuclear weapons technology and its successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile that theoretically could hit cities on the US east coast.
A proven SLBM system would take North Korea’s nuclear strike threat to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and a “second-strike” capability in the event of an attack on its military bases.
Japan’s defense ministry also deployed the anti-missile system in neighboring Ehime, according to the reports, while the Asahi Shimbun said one maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyer was stationed in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) to shoot down airborne missiles.
Television footage showed military vehicles carrying launchers and other equipment for the surface-to-air system entering a Japanese base in Kochi before dawn.
Immediate confirmation from the defense ministry was not available but an official at the crisis management office of the Kochi prefectural government said the PAC-3 had been deployed.
“While standing by 24 hours in preparation for a launch, we are calling on our residents to be on alert in case we issue emergency information,” Makoto Ebuchi added.
Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief government spokesman, said earlier this week that Tokyo “can never tolerate” provocations from North Korea and the country’s military, will “take necessary measures” to protect itself.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also renewed his pledge Saturday to prevent any accidents related to the North’s warned launch.
“I will do my best to secure our people’s lives and property,” Abe said without elaboration.
Japan has deployed the missile interceptors in the past ahead of other North Korean launches but has never actually shot anything down.
In 2009, a North Korean rocket passed over Japanese territory without incident, triggering Japan’s immediate denouncement.
At the time North Korea said it was launching a telecommunications satellite, but Washington, Seoul and Tokyo believed Pyongyang was testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
On Friday (Saturday in Manila), President Donald Trump urged North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un not to take any action against the US, its territories including Guam or its allies, warning he would regret such a move—and “regret it fast.”