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North Korea nuclear crisis

North Korea’s latest missile launch stirs discussion of pre-emptive strikes in Japan

Japan’s self-defence-only principle under the country’s anti-war constitution prohibits its military from making a first strike

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 10:27pm

Japan is debating whether to develop a limited pre-emptive strike capability and buy cruise missiles – ideas that were anathema in the pacifist country before the North Korea missile threat. With revisions to Japan’s defence plans under way, ruling party hawks are accelerating the moves, and some defence experts say Japan should at least consider them.

After being on the back burner in the ruling party for decades, a possibility of pre-emptive strike was formally proposed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by his party’s missile defence panel in March, prompting parliamentary debate, though somewhat lost steam as Abe apparently avoided the divisive topic after seeing support ratings for his scandal-laden government plunge.

North Korea’s test-firing on Tuesday of a missile, which flew over Japan and landed in the northern Pacific Ocean, has intensified fear and reignited the debate.

“Should we possess pre-emptive strike capability?” liberal-leaning Mainichi newspaper asked the following day. “But isn’t it too reckless to jump to discuss a ‘get them before they get you’ approach?”

Japan has a two-step missile defence system. First, Standard Missile-3 interceptors on Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan (or East Sea) would shoot down projectiles mid-flight and if that fails, surface-to-air PAC-3s would intercept them from within a 20km range.

Technically, the set-up can handle falling debris or missiles heading to Japan, but it is not good enough for missiles on a lofted trajectory, those with multiple warheads or simultaneous multiple attacks, experts claim.

A pre-emptive strike, by Japanese definition, is a step preceding the two-tier defence. Cruise missiles, such as Tomahawks, fired from Aegis destroyers or fighter jets, could hit the enemy missile waiting to be fired, or just after blast-off from a North Korean launch site, before it approaches Japan.

Japan’s self-defence-only principle under the country’s anti-war constitution prohibits its military from making a first strike, and officials discussing a limited pre-emptive strike are calling it a “strike-back” instead.

Whatever the language, it further loosens post-war Japan’s pacifist principle and could strain its relations with China, which is suspicious of Tokyo’s intentions. There are grey areas around how far Japan could go and still justify minimum self-defence.

It has become even more important for Japan to improve its missile and civil defence capabilities
Narushige Michishita, defence expert

Some experts are sceptical about how it would work. North Korea’s secretive, diversified and mobile launch system makes it extremely difficult to track down and incapacitate the weapons with Japan’s limited cruise missile attacks, security expert Ken Jimbo at Keio University wrote in a recent article. A pre-emptive strike capability would also require trillions of dollars to set up spy satellites, reconnaissance aircraft, cruise missiles, as well as training of special units, experts claim.

North Korea flight-tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July and has threatened to send missiles near the US territory of Guam, home to key military bases. The North already has short-range missiles that cover Japan and possibly has achieved miniaturised nuclear warheads, the Defence Ministry’s annual report says.

“North Korea has demonstrated its capability to hit targets anywhere in Japan,” said Narushige Michishita, a defence expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “It has become even more important for Japan to improve its missile and civil defence capabilities, and seriously think about acquiring limited but meaningful strike capabilities.”

Timing of the pre-emptive strike debate is seen in favour of supporters of the option in the ruling party and the Defence Ministry because they are just starting to revise Japan’s multi-year defence plans.

Abe called Tuesday’s missile firing “unprecedented, grave and serious threat”.

Defence minister Itsunori Onodera, an advocate of bolstering Japan’s missile and strike-back capability, said more provocations by the North are likely and Tokyo must quickly upgrade its missile arsenal.

The Defence Ministry announced on Thursday a record 5.26 trillion yen (US$48 billion) budget for fiscal 2018, which would cover purchase of upgraded missile defence systems such as land-based Aegis Ashore interceptors or the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, a mobile equipment Washington and Seoul have installed in South Korea. Beijing, which says THAAD’s powerful radar can reach deep into China and wants it removed, could react sharply if it is installed in Japan.

Abe, since taking office five years ago, has expanded Japan’s military role, allowing it to take on a greater task in international peacekeeping. In 2015, his government allowed Japan to fight for its allies when they come under enemy attack, a condition known as collective self-defence, by reinterpreting part of the constitution and railroading a new security legislation that sparked massive protests.

A pre-emptive strike, however, is even more sensitive and divisive topic and the government may have to prioritise upgrading missile interceptors for now, said Tetsuo Kotani, senior research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

Polls show most Japanese fear North Korea’s missile threat and support bolstering Japan’s intercepting capability, but in terms of pre-emptive strike, opponents overwhelmed supporters.

“Prime Minister Abe seems to have turned hesitant about discussing pre-emptive strikes,” Kotani said, suggesting Abe’s declining popularity is behind his reluctance to push the issue. “Public debate of pre-emptive strikes may slow down.”