TANEGASHIMA, Japan — Japan's first spy satellites were blasted into orbit today, causing an angry North Korea to warn the move could spark an arms race in the region.
The two satellites, the first of at least four in Japan's $2 billion spy program, will give Tokyo its own means of watching its communist neighbor's long-range missile development and suspected nuclear weapons program.
They blasted off into clear but windy skies atop a black and orange H2-A rocket from Tanegashima Space Center, a sprawling complex of launch pads on this rugged island about 700 miles southwest of Tokyo.
"It was a nearly flawless launch," said Shuichiro Yamanouchi, head of Japan's National Space Development Agency.
Friday's launch marked a milestone for Japan's space program, which had previously been limited to strictly non-military missions.
The satellites, which have both conventional photographic and radar imaging capabilities, are expected to be in use for about five years. If all goes well, they will orbit Earth at a height of 250-370 miles and be able to supply images regardless of weather conditions below.
The date for the subsequent launches has not been announced.
Officials say the satellites are not intended to provoke North Korea and will also be used for monitoring crop conditions, weather or natural disasters.
"It means we can obtain important information on our own to secure our country's peace, safety and independence," said Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba. "These satellites are not to attack some other country in the realm of science fiction."
But North Korea officials sharply criticized the launches.
"Japan will be held fully responsible for causing a new arms race in Northeast Asia," an unnamed spokesman of North Korea's Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying by the North's KCNA news agency.
In recent days, North Korea has warned that Japan's plans to launch satellites were "a hostile activity" and a "grave threat" to the communist state.
Moving to ease fears, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told lawmakers today his government has "no intention" of acquiring the military capability to launch pre-emptive attacks against another nation. But officials admit the program was prompted by the 1998 "Taepodong shock," when a North Korean Taepodong ballistic missile flew over Japan's main island before crashing into the Pacific off Alaska in 1998.
A North Korean government spokesman, quoted in the North's official media last week, hinted that if Tokyo went ahead with the launch Pyongyang might test-fire a long-range missile.
Japanese defense agency officials said no such test seemed imminent.
"So far, there is nothing that would lead us to believe that North Korea may test a ballistic missile in the immediate future," said Defense Agency spokesman Akihiro Kobe. "We have no specific information indicating North Korea is pushing ahead with preparations for missile tests in response to Japan's satellite launch."
A lack of clear data on what Japan's enigmatic communist neighbor is doing is one reason why Tokyo wants its own eyes in orbit.
Japan gets its intelligence primarily from the United States, which, along with spy satellites of its own, conducts frequent surveillance flights out of an air base on the southern Japan island of Okinawa.
Heightening tensions over the North's suspected development of nuclear weapons and its increasingly hostile stance toward Washington have caused deep concern in this country — virtually all of which is within range of its Taepodong missiles.
To discourage any brinkmanship, the United States, which has roughly 50,000 troops stationed in Japan, has deployed one of its aircraft carriers off the Korean Peninsula and bombers to the Pacific island of Guam.
Tokyo also sent an Aegis-equipped destroyer to the Japan Sea, which lies between Japan and North Korea.
With Washington's attention focused on its war on Iraq, Pyongyang has shown little interest in easing regional fears.
"It is becoming certain that if the U.S. imperialists' invasion of Iraq is successful, they will wage a new war of aggression on the Korean Peninsula," the North's main state newspaper Rodung Simnun said.
North Korea recently launched a short-range missile on the eve of the inauguration of South Korea's president and significantly escalated tensions by sending its fighters to intercept one of the Japan-based American spy flights while it was in international airspace. Washington strongly protested the incident.