The Japanese Defence Ministry has ordered its missile units to intercept the long-range rocket, Unha-3, which is expected to be launched by North Korea between 12 and 16 April 2012, if it flies over Japan.

The order was issued by Defence Minister Naoki Tanaka at Japan’s National Security Council meeting and follows earlier instructions for the military to prepare to intercept the rocket if it enters Japanese territory.

Tanaka said:"We must be fully prepared to protect the safety of our nation."

According to a statement released by the defence ministry, Japan intends to send Aegis missile defence systems to the Pacific and East China Sea, and also plans to deploy surface-to-air Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile interceptors to islands in Okinawa.

An interceptor missile unit might also be installed in Tokyo, which is far away from the expected flight path.

The Unha-3 rocket is expected to fly past western Japan following its planned launch from North Korea’s west coast, raising concerns that a failed launch, or a falling stage of the rocket, could lead to property damage or even jeopardise lives.

Fresh satellite imagery from Tongchang-ri launch site confirms that North Korea is proceeding with its plans to send the rocket despite mounting international pressure, insisting that it is peaceful in nature and intends to launch a telecommunication satellite into orbit.

The move, however, was condemned by the US, Russia, Japan, France and other nations, as it violates UN resolution 1874, which prohibits North Korea from conducting missile tests due to fears that the launch is part of an effort to build a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

The communist country’s neighbour, South Korea has also warned that it might shoot down any North Korean rocket parts that stray into its territory.

Japan had mobilised its interceptor units and issued a similar warning to North Korea prior to a rocket launch in 2009, but did not follow through.

The PAC-3 interceptor missiles have undergone successful testing, but have never been used by Japan in a combat situation.