TOKYO, March 28 (UPI) — Japan Friday launched its first two spy satellites to monitor North Korea’s missile and nuclear activities, the National Space Development Agency of Japan said.

The two satellites were carried by an H-2A rocket that took off from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Kagoshima Prefecture at 10:27 a.m. Officials said the rocket split off the two satellites by around 10:50 a.m., and they then opened their solar battery panels shortly after 11 a.m.

The government said it could mot confirm reports that North Korea would test missiles at the same time as the satellite launch.

The country’s Defense Agency said the launch will help Japan strengthen its safety and independence.

“It is meaningful for us to obtain by ourselves information to ensure the peace, safety and independence of our country,” Defense Agency Director General Shigeru Ishiba said.

The government maintained, however, the launch of the satellites will not undermine Japan’s security policy of self-defense that was mandated by its post-World War II Constitution.

“We are not going to gather information to attack foreign countries or invade them,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, the top government spokesman.

According to the government, the satellites will Japan’s national defense and help with natural disasters. But the Kyodo News Agency reported that it was widely believed the satellites’ main purpose was to keep an eye on North Korea. Pyongyang has labeled the launch a hostile act and warned Japan it was heading for “self-destruction.”

The government said it plans to launch two more spy satellites this summer. Data will be received and analyzed by spring, officials said. The grand plan envisages the launch of eight spy satellites by March 2009.

Japan now relies mainly on U.S. satellite information and communications signal intercepts to learn of North Korean missile launches, Kyodo reported.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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