Japan is most at risk in the North Korean missile crisis

01.08.17 Publication:

The drama is one being orchestrated in North Korea with its showy missile tests and in the US with America’s showy bomber patrols. The loudest noise is being directed at China, accused in Donald Trump’s tweets of “doing nothing” and threatened thus: “We will no longer allow this to continue”. But the country that really feels threatened is standing quietly in the wings: Japan.

As I found during a recent two-week visit, Japan feels threatened both because it is close at hand and because it is the single most tempting and likely target if North Korea’s dynastic leader, Kim Jong-Un, were ever to decide actually to use any of the missiles he has been testing. 

Hence Japanese communities, especially on the western coast of its main islands, closest to Korea, have been holding evacuation and shelter drills in preparation for missile attacks. But hence also, in coming weeks, the biggest moves to strengthen anti-missile defence systems and to re-start diplomacy aimed at containing the Korean threat are likely to be initiated by the Japanese government.

North Korea is East Asia’s permanently unsolvable problem. Its cruel, dictatorial regime’s determination to develop nuclear weapons along with the missile capabilities to use them has for more than a quarter century been deemed simultaneously “unacceptable”, in the language often used by the US, and unstoppable. 

It is unstoppable largely because the logic driving Kim Jong-Un towards becoming a nuclear power is so strong. In a country held together by the world’s last truly totalitarian state, the decision to focus scarce resources on building the ultimate deterrent against invasion unfortunately makes perfect sense.

Whether it makes sense to show off about it, holding a dozen tests of missiles and their rocket engines so far this year (after only five last year and just one in each of 2014 and 2015), is less clear. Although such behaviour is sometimes interpreted as being designed to shore up the regime’s power domestically, a more likely interpretation is that it has been designed to prove to America that North Korea is a lot closer than was previously thought to becoming a true nuclear-weapons power.

Such proof might deter the Americans from taking military action on grounds it is too late. However with a new, highly impetuous president in the White House, the tests might have the opposite effect, encouraging him to attack now in the belief that matters will only get worse.

That is what worries Japan the most. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, made sure last November that he was the first foreign leader to meet the newly elected US president precisely because Japan is so dependent on the Americans for its defence and yet also so close to a potential war zone.

Theresa May’s visit to President Trump in January on balance weakened her politically because it looked like kow-towing. By contrast, Abe’s visit was seen positively in Japan because it was seen as a bold effort to further the country’s national interests.

Now, however, Prime Minister Abe’s political fortunes are waning domestically, following a series of scandals, including the resignation last week of his very nationalistic defence minister, Tomomi Inada. But also, Japanese faith in American strategy towards North Korea is wearing thin.

Trump’s main approach has been to try badger China to strong-arm its North Korean ally. But the Japanese never expected this to work. One reason is that they know China’s influence in Pyongyang has long been indirect at best. But the main reason is that they know China cares far less about a nuclear-armed North Korea than the Americans do.

The Chinese don’t like instability, it is true. But in strategic terms they are happy to see North Korea keeping the US off-balance. In their view, this equates to the way the US keeps China off-balance by selling arms to Taiwan. After all, Trump began his presidency by taking a phone call from Taiwan’s president, casting doubt on 40 years of the US’s “one-China” policy, and outraged China by agreeing to sell $1.4 billion of arms to Taiwan at the end of June.

So what Japan can see is a flailing US administration that is running out of options, and a China that is digging its heels in over any action at all on North Korea. It can see a North Korea that is bragging about its theoretical ability to strike the US using an inter-continental ballistic missile, but which would know for sure that if it were to do so that massive retaliation would come within minutes.

Perhaps both sides, North Korea and the US, are what was known disparagingly in Maoist China as “paper tigers”. But any thoughtful Japanese strategist is also having to evaluate another, more frightening possibility: that a potential North Korean move, especially if the Americans were to try any sort of “surgical strikes”, would be an attack on Japan.

Japan is harder to defend than, say, the continental US because of its proximity, which means that North Korea could hope that some of its medium-range missiles might get through. But also, as the Japanese are keenly aware, an attack on them might not be unpopular in China. It might even gain some sympathy in South Korea, such is the historical enmity between Japan and its former colony.

Japan’s options are as limited as everyone else’s. It can copy South Korea by buying new and better missile-defence systems. It can try diplomacy to push all parties back to the negotiating table. It can keep whispering in the ear of the US Defence Secretary, James Mattis, about the need to restrain his president. And it can organize even more evacuation and shelter drills.