Will N. Korean Test Force Japanese Policy Change?
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — After years of legal and technical impediments, Japan appears ready to challenge Pyongyang’s ballistic saber-rattling, but its significance is in debate.
North Korea is expected to launch a Taepodong-2 ICBM sometime between April 4 and 8 from the Musudan-ri missile facility on its east coast. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have been ordered to take it down if it poses a threat to Japanese territory.
If Japan shoots the missile down, “it will be a historic move on Japan’s part,” said Masashi Nishihara, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, Tokyo. “Japan will have shown its willingness to defend its own people and territories.”
The missile is a new version of the Taepodong-2 missile, redubbed the Unha-2 (Galaxy-2) space launch vehicle. Joseph Bermudez, a U.S.based specialist on North Korean missile technology, said the rocket might carry the Kwangmyongsong2 (Brightstar-2) experimental communications satellite. This would be in line with Pyongyang’s claim it is a “peaceful space launch.”
Japan has built missile defenses over the past two decades in response to North Korean missile tests. In 2004, Tokyo announced ambitious plans to procure Patriot PAC-3 air defense systems and Standard Missile (SM)-3 ship-based air defense missiles. These systems are now deployed and ready.
Two Japanese Aegis-equipped destroyers have conducted SM-3 tests with the U.S. Navy near Hawaii. In December 2007, a Kongo-class destroyer hit a target with an SM-3, but a Chokai destroyer failed a similar test 11 months later.
“Japan’s current missile defense assets do not provide the capability to engage a missile in the boost or midcourse phases, only in the inbound terminal phase,” said Bruce Klingner, Korea specialist at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “Although Japan has deployed its missile defense system for the first time in an operational context, this does not have strategic implications.”
Rule of Law?
Japanese law says the missile must clearly pose a danger to Japanese territory before the military can shoot it down.
“Japan’s government gave the Joint Task Force commander permission to shoot down any missile or piece of a missile that is heading towards Japan,” said Mike Green, who holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.
But since the Taepodong is a longrange missile, Japan would only shoot “if there were an accident, break-up or misfire that threatened Japanese territory.”
That doesn’t seem unlikely. In 1998, a Taepodong-1 missile flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean. But in 2006, the Taepodong-2’s only flight test ended in failure after 40 seconds, when the rocket crashed into the sea.
“Under those rules of engagement, a shoot-down would be completely legal,” Green said. “This is new because the government has never given this kind of authority a priori and because it is the first time there has been an operational joint command like this among Japan’s three services. It makes Japan more like a ‘normal’ nation.”
Yet Tokyo may not shoot down a missile that is passing over the island, even if it is bound for the United States.
“Tokyo’s current interpretation of the theory of collective self-defense prevents it from engaging a missile that is not directly threatening Japan, even if the missile is assessed as threatening an ally,” Klingner said.
However, the prime minister could override this self-imposed restriction, said Sumihiko Kawamura, deputy director of the Okazaki Institute, Tokyo, and a retired admiral. But that would draw fire from political opponents.
“The opposition camp, led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), will accuse the government of Japan of violating the long-held government’s interpretation of the Constitution, which prohibits Japan from exercising the right of collective self-defense,” Kawamura said.
North Korea’s diplomatic maneuvers are a predictable cycle of threats, show of force, talks, breaking agreements and more threats. U.S. negotiators come and go, with little institutional memory, but North Korean negotiators remain the same.
“The bottom line, as I see it, is that North Korea has presented the U.S., Japan and RoK [South Korea] with a no-win situation,” said Kenneth Quinones, the U.S. State Department’s North Korean affairs officer from 1992-94.
Kim has “taken steps that will virtually exclude the possibility of a rational diplomatic end to his weapons of mass destruction programs.” Quinones said the launch, successful or not, “will further enhance Pyongyang’s ballistic missile capability” and Kim Jong Il’s image in the eyes of his generals. Moreover, it will boost North Korean missile exports, possibly to Iran and Syria, he said.
Yet the missile test could change Japan’s long-held strategic posture. Kawamura said that if Japan shoots down the rocket, “the current public concern for the North Korean threat is likely to take a step forward, from how to improve Japan’s missile defense capability, to how to deal with the North Korean threat by a more comprehensive deterrence,” including a pre-emptive strike option.