The North Korean rocket watch begins

Tokyo and Manila lie in the shadow of the planned launch, with much of the region looking to the US for strategic support. .


    Tick-tock. The wait has begun. The North Korean rocket launch is expected anytime in the morning from today through Monday. At least, that’s what's been announced - April 12 to 16.

    Northeast and southeast Asia are on tenterhooks as the rocket is expected to cut a path between China and Japan as it heads towards the Philippines.

    But North Korea isn't really known for sticking to its word, so the US and its Pacific allies are watching developments closely. 

    North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), is celebrating the birth centenary of its founding leader, Kim Il-sung.

    And as the climax, it's fuelled-up a three-stage rocket - ostensibly to send a satellite into space to monitor North Korea’s crops and weather.

    But the US and its allies see this as a smoke-screen, concerned that the small, secretive, nuclear-armed nation is actually testing its long-range ballistic missile capabilities in defiance of a UN ban.

    In the process, the government is shoring up the credibility of the founding father’s grandson, Kim Jong-un, who is the country's newly-installed leader.

    Japan: Deja vu

    For South Korea and Japan, it's all a trifle déjà vu. Both neighbours have found themselves in North Korea’s cross-hairs before.

    This isn’t the first time North Korea is being "provocative" and it’s launched rockets twice in the past.

    In both instances, the DPRK seemed to fail in its stated intention to send satellites into orbit, but each failure was followed by a subterranean atomic bomb test.

    The US and its allies fear most that the pattern will be repeated. Launch a rocket, then test a bomb. Tick-tock. 

    Adding to the worry is that the US scientist with the most "direct knowledge" of North Korea’s nuclear programme had earlier warned that the DPRK was only one test away from finalising a warhead for deployment.

    Just as it did in 2009, Japan has once again positioned surface-to-air missile launchers in case the North Korean rocket deviates from its intended path and threatens Japanese territory.

    No missiles needed to be fired in 2009 Japan hopes for the same outcome now. 

    Philippines: New dancer

    The "nuclear-threat" dance may be a familiar one for Japan, South Korea and the US, but the Philippines is new to the floor.

    Many in the Southeast Asian archipelago were unsure how to respond to suddenly finding themselves in the trajectory of a DPRK rocket.

    The rocket’s third stage is expected to be released and fall some 100km east of Luzon island, where the capital Manila is situated.

    Unlike Japan, the Philippines isn’t equipped to intercept rocket debris in mid-air. Many Filipinos jest, albeit half-seriously, that their only armour is prayer. 

    The only thing the country’s national disaster management council could do was advise residents along the eastern shoreline to stay indoors and away from the seas during possible launch times. 

    But there are those who have criticised the government for being "alarmist".

    Just like their Japanese counterparts though, Philippine officials say it is "better to be safe than sorry" - which is the same mantra being repeated by Japanese authorities who are now on high alert.
    Japan’s government says it is being cautious and "decisively responsive", but it too has been challenged domestically for not just preparing the surface-to-air missile launchers, but also deploying hundreds of personnel from the Self-Defence Forces to communities unhappy with the heightened militarisation. 

    Some Japanese nationals are calling it "overkill" and an "exaggerated response" to a  "presumed threat".

    Sceptics even suspect the government of "using" the North Korean "situation" to push for greater US military participation in Japan, and eventually effect a change in the country’s post-World War II pacifist security policy. 

    On a wing and a prayer

    The one thing both Japan and the Philippines have in common is a general sentiment among its citizens that they have enough problems of their own domestically than to worry over the "shenanigans" of an unpredictable neighbour’s posturing and sabre-rattling.

    One Tokyo resident called the DPRK’s actions "nonsense" and "a nuisance". A distracting, useless provocation.

    With its economy struggling, Japan is still in the throes of recovering after the triple tragedy of a massive earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster devastated its eastern coastline just a year ago.

    On the other hand, the Philippines - aside from constantly being battered by natural calamities, and facing a variety of internal problems typical of a developing state – is also dealing with "a larger beast" right on its doorstep by way of China.

    Tensions have been escalating between the two countries because of a long-standing territorial dispute over a small group of islands potentially rich in oil and natural gas.

    Manila's navy was recently involved in a four-day stand-off with Chinese surveillance ships over illegal fishermen.

    The Philippine navy’s singular warship has only just been pulled back from the incident. Both governments say they are trying to maintain a diplomatic, and trade, balance. But ruffled feathers, on either side, are far from being smoothed.

    US involvement

    What’s becoming more pronounced is the region’s reliance on the US for strategic support.

    The Philippines is counting on US help in modernising its military, and still plays host to hundreds of US troops, despite having formally shut its two bases down in the 1990s. 

    In Japan, there are still more than 35,000 US troops based on its soil. And over 28,000 in South Korea. 

    All these countries are counting on the US to have their backs in a security crisis.

    And like a chess master with all his pieces in place, the US too gets what it’s always said it wanted: to remain a power player in the Asia-Pacific region despite China’s economic dominance.

    Discussions on China’s role in all this are for another time.

    Day two of North Korean rocket watch begins. It’s not easy to tell who is pulling whose strings, or which of the "dancers" is dictating the rhythm.

    In the background, across borders, ordinary residents are swept up in the whirlwind. Even beyond matters of state and politics, there is no escaping the tempo.

    Tick-tock, tick-tock.



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