TOKYO — North Korea’s nuclear and missile technology development has been met with condemnation from the international community, not least from neighboring countries.
For Japan, however, the deepening crisis raises some serious questions about the nature of its security policy.
Rising tensions have put pressure on Tokyo to re-examine its defense systems — in particular, the division of roles between its Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military presence in the country.
The Japanese Defense Ministry was even more alarmed than usual after Pyongyang’s latest missile test launch on Sunday.
“It is not the usual stuff,” said one official. The projectile reached an altitude of over 2,000km — a first for a North Korean missile — before landing in the Sea of Japan some 30 minutes later, in a flight pattern that may indicate the reclusive state has developed a new type of missile. The lofted trajectory made it fall at a higher speed than a one launched on a standard trajectory.
The SDF’s Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptor © Kyodo
On Monday, an attendant at a meeting of lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party voiced concerns about “limitations” to Japan’s ability to intercept such missiles.
A senior Defense Ministry official confirmed that it is difficult for Japan’s current missile defense system, which relies on technologies such as the Patriot Advanced Capability-3, interceptor, to shoot down a missile of the kind used in the latest launch.
In March, the Kim Jong Un regime caused serious concern among security policymakers in Tokyo and Washington by simultaneously firing four ballistic missiles.
Japan is under pressure to redefine its security alliance with the U.S. © Kyodo
A secret SDF simulation showed that, in the event of such an attack, the radars of the Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel equipped with the Aegis missile defense system would focus on tracking the first missile launched.
Even if multiple Aegis ships were deployed to counter such an attack, there is no guarantee that the other missiles could also be shot down, according to the results of the simulation.
Since its establishment in 1954, the SDF has had its military capabilities restricted under Japan’s strictly defensive security policy.
After the end of the Cold War, Japan “redefined” its security alliance with the U.S. so that the SDF can cooperate with the U.S. forces in security emergencies around the country.
The current crisis over North Korea’s weapons programs inevitably puts pressure on Tokyo to re-examine the alliance.
The situation has prompted debate over the traditional division of roles between the SDF and U.S. forces. Under the current arrangement, the SDF is supposed to act as the “shield” protecting Japan while the U.S. forces are the “spear” that can attack.
At a meeting on March 30, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed with a proposal from Hiroshi Imazu, the chairman of the LDP’s research commission on security, that the government should take steps to enhance the country’s missile defense system and give the SDF the ability to strike enemy targets.
In response to the ruling party’s proposals, the government will start considering the introduction of the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system.
Many government and LDP policymakers are also calling for the introduction of Tomahawk cruise missiles in order to be able to hit enemy bases. With a range of about 3,000km, a Tomahawk could attack a position in North Korea from long distance.
A Tomahawk missile © Reuters
At 100 million yen ($890,000) each, Tomahawk missiles are a cheaper way to bolster national security than interceptor missiles, which come in at several billion yen. Powerful attack weapons could also act as a greater deterrent.
In order to ensure that such weapons are not used for pre-emptive strikes, which are banned by the country’s Constitution, however, it is necessary for Japan to be able to detect and confirm an enemy intention to launch an armed attack — something it cannot manage without information from the U.S. military.
Koichi Furusho, a former chief of staff of the MSDF, says Japan should seriously consider allowing the U.S. to station nuclear arms in Japan and for the SDF to have an aircraft carrier. The bilateral security alliance does not work if Japan is totally dependent on U.S. forces to attack enemies, he argues.
These ideas have long been taboo under Japan’s postwar security policy and have never been given serious consideration.
Such measures would undoubtedly meet an angry response from Beijing and elsewhere in the region, creating a diplomatic challenge for Tokyo.
But the crisis on the Korean Peninsular forces the Japanese government to address a range of touchy issues, including if and how the SDF’s role should be expanded and whether Japan needs to redefine its alliance with the U.S.