Japan Self-Defense Forces soldiers drive a PAC-3 missile unit into place at Asaka base, north of Tokyo. Photo: Reuters / Issei Kato

Japan opened a missile defence drill to the public on Wednesday, a move it says will reassure the country it is ready to counter any missile attack by neighboring North Korea.

A PAC-3 Patriot battery drove on to the Asaka Self Defence Forces base near Tokyo, deployed its radar antenna and raised its missile launcher to firing position. The drill is one of four being held across Japan.

“Making this public is a way to reassure people about their safety and bring peace of mind,” Akinori Hanada, an Air Self Defence Force major, said.

North Korea has pushed ahead with its missile and nuclear weapons programs in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, and regularly threatens to destroy the United States, Japan and South Korea.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this month North Korea’s advancing weapons programmes were the “most urgent” threat to national security and that its means to deliver them had increased in speed and scope.

South Korea has deployed the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to protect against the North Korean threat, angering China, North Korea’s lone major ally.

Japan‘s PAC-3 batteries are the last line of defence against any incoming warheads. With a range of around 15km, they are only able to protect larger cities and key government installations.

Advances in North Korea’s ballistic missile programme have raised concern in Tokyo that its PAC-3 batteries and Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan could be overwhelmed.

Japan has begun a US$1 billion program to upgrade the PAC-3s to extend their range and accuracy, but the first of those will not be ready until 2020.

In addition to public PAC-3 exercises, some Japanese prefectures have also conducted missile attack evacuation drills in recent weeks.

Japan will follow these up with a series of 30-second public information broadcasts and newspaper ads beginning Friday advising people what to do in the event of a North Korean missile attack, the Yomiuri newspaper said.

A Japanese government spokeswoman declined to comment when asked about the report.

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