The flurry of North Korean ballistic missile tests this year is bolstering the case of influential members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government who say Japan needs new military options, including cruise missiles capable of striking enemy bases.
North Korea fired off a test missile on Wednesday this week, which followed four ballistic launches on March 6. Three of the March projectiles, a form of upgraded Scud missile, traveled about 1,000 kilometers before falling into Japanese waters.
“A new level of threat,” is how Abe described those launches to Japan’s public.
Beside being in violation of UN Security Council rulings to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon development program, the March missiles were reportedly a simulated test attack on a US military base in Japan.
They ditched in the ocean about 300 km (190 miles) from Japan’s mainland, the closest North Korean rockets have come to a country that Pyongyang regards as a sworn enemy.
Itsunori Onodera, a former Japanese defense minister, said North Korea had significantly increased its missile capabilities in the past few years, including use of mobile launch pads that are difficult to track.
“Given the fact that we have to be on alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year means that we need to introduce new [military] assets,” Onodera said at a press conference in Tokyo on Wednesday.
He spoke just hours after North Korea drew fresh condemnation from the US and Japan for launching another test missile.
US President Donald Trump called Abe overnight and “made clear that the United States will continue to strengthen its ability to deter and defend itself and its allies with the full range of its military capabilities,” according to a White House statement.
The idea of Japan developing the capability to strike enemy bases is the most contentious proposed by Onodera’s Liberal Democratic Party study group, which handed its report to Abe last week.
Japan’s war-renouncing constitution, authored by the US occupation forces after World War II, still commits the country to a strictly defensive military posture.
However, Onodera said new thinking is needed as previous assumptions about how an enemy might attack Japan – such as dropping bombs from planes – are outdated.
“Currently we are examining what needs to be done in order to cover a situation where the enemy would launch a missile from their territory reaching Japan,” Onodera, who remains a member of Japan’s parliament, said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
“Ultimately, to defend Japan we would have to attack the base from which the missiles are being launched and also the equipment used to launch these missiles,” he said.
“But I must emphasise that this attack is designed to prevent the second attack or third attack. So what we’re studying here is not a pre-emptive attack but instead a counter-attack in case the enemy should attack Japan.”
Gen Nakatani, another former defense minister and serving lawmaker, added that the constitution allowed for minimal self-defense capability and this allows for this counter-attack discussion.
“It is the responsibility of the government to protect the lives and properties of the Japanese people,” said Nakatani, who oversaw the 2015 security laws reinterpreting the constitution to allow Japan to come to the aid of an ally under attack.
Until now, Japan has relied on US military protection, including that offered by the American nuclear “umbrella.”
About 50,000 US military personnel are stationed in Japan. Since the US election, President Donald Trump and his secretaries of state and defense have insisted their commitment to defending Japan remains at “100%.”
However, Trump’s campaign rhetoric – including claims that Japan and South Korea were not pulling their weight in their respective military alliances with the US – rattled nerves in Tokyo and Seoul.
“We are currently studying and discussing how Japan can complement the United States forces in a contingency,” Onodera said.
Despite the Trump administration saying all options remain on the table against Pyongyang, the possibility of the US initiating military attacks against North Korea is “very low,” said Narushige Michishita, a professor at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
“Now that North Korea has nuclear weapons which have been dispersed around the country and hidden in different places, unless the United States can destroy all of them at the same time there’s a high likelihood of being retaliated [against] and that risk is too high a risk to take,” Michishita said at a recent briefing at the Foreign Press Center Japan.
Michishita said the greatest threat to Japan came from the Nodong ballistic missile, also known as Rodong.
“The range is 1,300km. Once launched it will reach Japan in about 10 minutes. So we are sitting here within range.”
Japan’s existing defenses against ballistic missiles including Aegis destroyers and the Patriot PAC-3 system. However, these systems are seen as of limited use against multiple missile strikes.
Hence, Onodera’s group is recommending the government consider deploying the so-called Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, or a land-based version of Aegis.
The installation of THAAD in South Korea has triggered strong criticism from China, which claims the powerful THAAD radar is a threat because it can monitor China facilities.
Beijing retaliated by punishing South Korean businesses with China operations, but Onodera said Japan should not be intimidated by the possibility of facing similar retaliation.
“If it is the X-band radar that comes with THAAD that is bringing this criticism, in that case the US forces in Japan already have two X-band radars and therefore I do not believe that the countries around Japan, our neighbors, need to be concerned about this,” Onodera said.
Japan is right to be looking at strengthening its missile defenses, said Dr Robert Kelly, an associate professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University.
“North Korea does not need [missiles] to hit South Korea, and it is not going to strike Russia or China. So who is the target for its theater weapons?” Kelly said in an email response to questions.
“North Korea purposely tests medium-range missiles in Japan’s direction, and there is no other target for these than Japan.”