Japan will embark this month on an initiative to gather information on North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear plant operations with the launch of new eyes in the sky.

Set for a March 28 launch from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Japan, the first two of four information-gathering satellites will be lofted into orbit to provide Japan with an independent look at the reclusive state.

By doing so, observers say, Japan is beginning a move away from American dependence for surveillance of regions it deems vital for the nation’s security.

“It’s one step closer to Japan being able to meet its security needs independently,” said Jim Lewis, technology policy director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“The North Koreans have made the Japanese nervous and concerned, so we’re seeing changes in how Japan thinks about security and the use of military force that were out of the question 10 years ago.”

U.S. restrictions on sharing satellite intelligence have been a source of friction with many countries including Japan, Lewis believes.

“They always want more than we’ll give them, or they think there is something we’re not showing them,” he said.

A former head of the Japan Defense Agency’s Joint Staff Council from 1993-94, Tetsuya Nishimoto, said he was not aware of an agreement that the United States provided satellite photos to its ally as some Japanese newspapers reported last week.

Japan could not obtain the satellite information from the United States about North Korea’s nuclear facilities since Japan does not have an agreement with its ally to receive the satellite information.

“It is good for Japan to have its own satellite views,” he said. “By having her own satellites, Japan can have photos anytime when they want them.”

However, Nishimoto said Japan’s four satellites will not make Japan less reliant on U.S.-supplied intelligence photos.

“Four satellites can hardly save Japan from North Korea’s missile attacks,” he said.

Japan decided to develop its own system of observation satellites after North Korea test fired a Taepodong ballistic missile over northern Honshu in August 1998.

According to a spokesman with Japan’s Cabinet Satellite Information Center, cost of the four satellites, plus the two H2-A rockets that will place them in orbit, is 200 billion yen, or $1.7 billion.

Three facilities have been built in Hokkaido, Ibaragi and Kagoshima prefectures to capture information and images from the satellites, according to the spokesman who declined to give his name.

Information will be transmitted to a central office in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward for processing and analyzing of data.

Japan Defense Agency spokesman Ichiro Imaizumi said the agency hopes to have all four observation satellites in orbit by March of next year.

Launch dates for the second pair of satellites has not been determined.

The government once considered purchasing satellites from America’s Lockheed Martin, but opted for domestic development to try to boost Japan’s space industry.

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