The recent Japanese Defense White Paper warns of threats from North Korea arising from Pyongyang’s continued missile tests, including the last two Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) tests. Significantly, Japan published its annual Defense White Paper on the tail of the ICBM tests in August 2017.
The 2017 White Paper, which runs into 563 pages, noted that North Korea carried out two nuclear explosions and had carried out more than 20 ballistic missile tests since 2016. 20 rounds of tests during this time meant that the Kim Jong Un regime fired more missiles than his father’s regime did (an estimated 16 missiles in total) in 18 years. Some experts consider this as an acceleration of the missile program under the Kin Jong Un regime.
Other experts connected the missile launches with domestic politics. Some observers saw the missile tests (a show of strength and power with nationalistic symbolism) as part of the political purges that have occurred in North Korea. The removal of his father’s confidants and Kim’s purges of the political elites are seen by some as power consolidation, as are the missile tests. Some have even argued that nuclear weaponry may be a guarantor against regime changes that have befallen other autocratic states such as Libya. These are perceptions rather than official policy pronouncements. Others have conceptualized the missile tests as efforts to shore up international respect and self-confidence. In other words, a kind of prestige factor for a marginalized and ostracized state.
One of these missiles came down at a location about 200 km near Hokkaido. The latest two missiles were fired into the atmosphere but experts calculated that if the missiles launched during these last two launches had been launched at a certain angle, they would have had the potential to reach Alaska and Colorado. For many international observers, the latest tests represented a vast leap in technological prowess of the North Korean missile program, in addition to the regime’s recent nuclear and hydrogen bomb tests. The fifth test of 10 kilotons was much smaller than the fourth test which the North Koreans claim was a hydrogen bomb. Nevertheless, the lack of information from the hermit kingdom reduces the amount of information publicly available that is related to that country’s nuclear arsenal or capabilities.
At the current stage, the North Koreans have a spectrum of missiles that include shorter range options like the Scud and longer range missiles like the Nodong 1, Musudan 4, and even longer ones like the KN-08 and Taepodong 2. But the last two missile tests indicated ranges far longer than these missile systems. In the recent standoff, with the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson, the Japanese government had warned of the possibility of another form of Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD): sarin-tipped Scud missiles possibly and potentially deployable by Pyongyang. Due to these fears of sarin-tipped Scud-like missiles, the Japanese have been practicing drills to prepare for the possibility and potential of a chemical or nuclear attack. More drills have been held at the local community and municipal levels, and there also has been a heightened effort at building more shelters that can withstand nuclear attacks.
For the next phase, the international community is wondering if North Korea will move towards miniaturizing the warhead. All stakeholders are also carefully watching to see if North Korea can develop technologies that can withstand high heat and friction during warhead re-entry back from the atmosphere. The combination of a miniature warhead with a long-range missile is an undesirable outcome for the major Asia-Pacific powers (China and the US in particular) that are all pro-peace. The other technology that the international community has noticed is the operational use of solid fuel for North Korean missiles. Solid fuels are easier to load than liquid fuel, and provide faster operationality for firing preparation.
Japan may purchase more SM3 missiles, land Aegis systems and PAC-3s to boost their defense system and cover a wider perimeter against hostile and rogue missiles.
Another capability that North Korea has demonstrated is the Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) system. The Pukkuksong-1 (also known as Bukgeukseong-1 or KN-11) is a SLBM. The North Koreans fired that missile towards Japan in August 2016. The North Korean SLBM was tested in the morning from the North Korean submarine base of Sinpo and it entered Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). This was the first case of such a launch and the air space it traversed. Some experts concluded the test was a success. There are only six major countries in the world with SLBM capabilities, including the three major nuclear powers.
This may raise fears that North Korea may be designing a nuclear strike capability that can persist even after its land forces have been decimated. This may also bring Pyongyang closer to a nuclear triad system if they decide to acquire bomber capabilities. Currently, only the Americans and Russians have a triad system of land-based missiles, SLBMs, and supersonic bombers. The Chinese may be acquiring the third leg in the triad with development of supersonic bombers.
Japan had the unfortunate experience in the 1990s of domestic terrorism when the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, which was led by its visually-handicapped leader Shoko Asahara, launched a sarin gas attack. Japan is also the only country in the world to have experienced atomic bombing during World War II. Japanese fishermen were doused in radioactive ash during nuclear testing in the Pacific and, in 2011, in an event known as ‘311’ or the Great East Japan Earthquake, a nuclear reactor at Fukushima was damaged and leaked radiation. Therefore, the country is especially sensitive to the use of WMDs, whether chemically-based or nuclear.
Some in the media have highlighted efforts by a Japanese group of parliamentarians headed by Itsunori Onodera (the new Minister of Defense at this point of writing) to lobby Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to think about implementing weapons systems that can strike enemy bases pre-emptively. There are some international narratives that argue Japan should proceed as if North Korea has already acquired the capabilities for nuclear warfare and to prepare for such a contingency.
Aegis destroyers and PAC-3 make up the bulk of Japan’s defensive system right now against North Korean missiles. Japan may purchase more SM3 missiles, land Aegis systems and PAC-3s to boost their defense system and cover a wider perimeter against hostile and rogue missiles. It may even consider the Theatre High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile defense system which has a sophisticated radar system that is already operational in South Korea, for the same reason. China has opposed the THAAD deployment in South Korea, citing risks to its national security.
Japan, the US, and South Korea are likely to beef up inter-operability, while trying to work with China constructively for a diplomatic solution. Another important point is that Japan will strengthen its cooperation with the US under President Donald J. Trump, who has said he will be strong against the North Korean threat. Secretary Rex Tillerson is conciliatory and has said the US is not seeking regime change. President Trump had in the past showed some willingness for talks under the right conditions.
Ultimately, the major powers of the US, Japan, South Korea, and China are showing great restraint and patience with diplomacy, even as they shore up defensive measures. The diplomats are working hard to bring all stakeholders to the table, either in the form of bilateral talks between Pyongyang and Washington, or six-party talks involving Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and the US.