Japan has long limited its military to a strictly defensive role. Although successive governments have argued that, in theory, striking an enemy pre-emptively to thwart an imminent attack would be an act of self-defense, and therefore constitutional, the country has mostly avoided acquiring the kind of armaments it would need to do so. They include long-range cruise missiles, air-to-ground missiles and refueling aircraft that extend the range of fighter jets.
Some senior officials are now arguing that Japan should acquire such weapons.
“North Korea’s missile launches have escalated tensions, both in terms of quality and quantity,” Itsunori Onodera, Japan’s new defense minister, said on Friday, a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe installed him in the post in a cabinet reshuffle. “I would like to study if our current missile defense is sufficient.”
In March, Mr. Onodera led a committee of lawmakers from the governing Liberal Democratic Party in recommending that Japan consider acquiring the ability to carry out pre-emptive strikes. His views could be reflected in an updated five-year military strategy that is to be published by the Defense Ministry next year.
Japan has already committed to buying advanced F-35 fighter planes, and it is shopping for an upgraded land-based missile defense system to improve its chances of shooting down any incoming North Korean missiles.
North Korea escalated its standoff with the United States and other nations on Tuesday, warning that it would take unspecified “physical action” in retaliation for new sanctions the United Nations Security Council adopted over the weekend.
Officials and analysts say they still doubt that North Korea has mastered all of the technologies needed to deliver a nuclear payload on an intercontinental ballistic missile. But the country’s latest ICBM test, conducted on July 28, was nonetheless alarming, demonstrating that its missiles now have a potential range that could extend to much of the continental United States.
Even more than Japan, South Korea is working to build its monitoring and striking abilities, including with radars and remote-controlled reconnaissance planes to track and neutralize North Korean missiles in pre-emptive attacks.
Some want to go further. On Monday, South Korea’s conservative opposition group, the Liberty Korea Party, issued a statement favoring the deployment of American tactical nuclear weapons in the country, the Yonhap news agency reported.
“Peace will come when we achieve a balance of power, not when we are begging for it,” the party’s leader, Hong Joon-pyo, was quoted as saying.
After the North’s ICBM tests, South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, reversed his decision to suspend the deployment of an advanced American missile defense system. He also asked the United States to let the South build more powerful ballistic missiles, a move that would require Washington’s approval under the terms of a bilateral treaty.
Some opinion surveys have indicated that most South Koreans favor their country developing nuclear weapons of its own, to counter the North’s, though Mr. Moon opposes the idea.
Hideshi Takesada, a specialist on defense issues at the Institute of World Studies at Takushoku University in Tokyo, said that if South Korea acquired nuclear weapons, Japan might rethink its longstanding aversion to them — despite its traumatic experiences at the end of World War II, when American atomic bombs devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“If South Korea went nuclear, that debate would happen in Japan, too,” Professor Takesada said.
On Sunday, at an event commemorating the 72nd anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, journalists pressed Mr. Abe about the debate over developing the capacity for pre-emptive strikes against North Korea.
In a carefully hedged answer, the prime minister said, “At the present time, we are not planning any specific deliberations about possessing” weapons for a pre-emptive strike. But he added that Japan needed to strengthen its defenses generally, “given that the security situation surrounding Japan is becoming increasingly severe.”
Professor Takesada said that Mr. Abe would have to tread carefully on the issue. Opposition to his goal of undoing the Constitution’s restrictions on the military has contributed to a recent slide in his approval ratings. And extending Japan’s military reach could antagonize not only North Korea but also the South, where distrust of Japan, the Korean Peninsula’s former colonial occupier, remains entrenched.
Despite such risks, Professor Takesada said, Japan should acquire the capacity for pre-emptive strikes, if only for its potential deterrent effect. An unsettled North Korea policy in Washington under President Trump, he added, made maximizing Japan’s own capacities more urgent.
“Short of getting nuclear weapons, which very few Japanese support, this is the best conventional way to make Kim Jong-un think twice about attacking,” he said.
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