Saturday, October 09, 2004

Tokyo spends a lot to handle the high-tech spy game

Difficult to get accurate data despite investing
billions of yen to put its own spy satellites into

With North Korea in its backyard, Japan has become the
latest player in the high-priced field of espionage.

It has spent billions of yen to put into orbit spy
satellites that defence officials say are crucial in
gathering information.

But they acknowledge that the data provided by
Japanese satellites still lags far behind that of the
United States in terms of accuracy, reported Asahi
Shimbun yesterday.

US spy satellites can achieve sharp resolution of
objects as small as 10cm at ground level while the
Japanese models can detect only objects that are 1.5m
or bigger.

This explains why Japan still remains very much
dependent on US intelligence.

Last month, Japanese satellites, positioned around
500km above the site of a mysterious explosion in
North Korea, revealed not a trace of the blast which
sparked fears of a nuclear test.

The blast was later found to be part of demolition
work for a hydroelectric project.

Day after day, Japanese analysts received only
pictures of cloud formations. They finally had to turn
to the US for the relevant satellite images - at a
high cost.

Japan does not have full access to images captured by
the US satellites. The decision lies with US Air Force
officers at the US military command in Japan.

'The US government can restrict the selling of images
taken by American satellites if it thinks it would be
to its disadvantage,' said a former top-ranking
Defence Agency official, adding that Japan needs to
develop its own spy satellites.

Since 1985, the Defence Agency and the Self-Defence
Forces have routinely purchased photos from commercial
satellites put into orbit by US and European

It was only after Pyongyang stunned the world in 1998
by test-launching a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan
that Tokyo decided to step up monitoring of North
Korea via satellite.

Japan's very own reconnaissance satellites were
launched in March last year. Two more were planned to
go up last November but remain grounded after the H2A
rocket No. 6, which was to carry the satellites,
failed to launch, Asahi Shimbun reported.

Last month, the Japanese government announced plans to
start research on an advanced spy satellite and launch
it in 2010, reported the Kyodo news agency.

The satellite will be able to distinguish objects on
Earth as small as 50cm, Kyodo quoted government
resources as saying.

About 80 analysts have been sent for training in the
US and France. In the past 18 months, a whopping 250
billion yen (S$3.8 billion) has been spent on the
satellites, which command an annual running cost of 20
billion yen, said Asahi Shimbun.

The efforts, however, appear to have paid off,
especially with regard to North Korea.

Last summer, analysts picked up an image detailing the
area surrounding the Yongbyon nuclear facility,
suspected site of North Korea's nuclear weapons

The information led analysts to suspect that the area
could be a launching site for Rodong missiles which
could reach any part of Japan with a range of about

In April, analysts were able to glean images that
confirmed that a blast in Ryongchon, near the North
Korea-China border, was in fact a train explosion as
Pyongyang claimed.

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