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A New North Korean Missile Threat Faces Japan

The Japanese Ministry of Defense has issued a "destruction order" in the event a planned North Korean satellite launch threatens Japanese territory.



This photo provided by the North Korean government shows the test-firing of what it says a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile at Pyongyang International Airport on Nov. 18, 2022. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event and the content cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA." (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service File)

A North Korean general close to Kim Jong Un has said that the country will launch a military satellite in June. This would be a direct breach of United Nations sanctions, forbidding the country from further provocative acts. 

The Japan Self-Defense Force is on high alert. It is also analyzing what appeared to be a North Korean ballistic missile launch toward Okinawa Prefecture on May 31. That missile failed and fell into the sea off North Korea's west coast, according to Japan's defense ministry. However, the SDF says it has an option of intercepting future launches over the Japanese archipelago. Following, we answer your questions about the situation. 

How do we know the North Koreans are going to launch another rocket?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (right), along with his daughter Ju Ae, is pictured in Pyongyang on May 16. He was meeting with members of the Non-permanent Satellite Launch Preparatory Committee. (File photo via KCNA/author)

A senior North Korean military official issued a statement on May 30 stating the intention to launch a military satellite in June. Ri Pyong Chol is vice chairman of the Workers' Party's Central Military Committee. He has been sanctioned by the United States as a "key leader" of North Korea's ballistic missile program.

Japanese, American, and South Korean intelligence services are watching closely. And the prime minister's office in Tokyo is keeping track of the situation.

There also seems to have been communication between the North Koreans and the International Maritime Organization, although how the messages were exchanged is somewhat unclear.

When is the rocket due to launch?

Ri Pyong Chol said the rocket will be launched in June, although earlier reports suggested a launch window of between May 31st and June 11th. Observers say the actual launch date is likely to depend on the weather and other conditions.

Where's it going?

Japan's Coast Guard reckons it will pass over the nation's Ryukyu Islands (aka the Nansei Shoto), lying southwest of Kyushu. This causes deep concern among the small communities living on the remote Sakishima Islands

Both the Japanese Self-Defense Force and Japan Coast Guard maintain a constant presence in the region. According to reports, the "destruction order" from the Ministry of Defense is "in preparation for the fall into our territory."

The JS Maya, a Japanese Aegis-equipped destroyer, fires a newly developed interceptor missile during a test in November 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force)

Is the North Korean rocket a satellite or a missile?

North Korea says that a military reconnaissance satellite will be launched in June. However, defense experts note that sometimes the North Koreans have claimed they are launching satellites when they are actually experimenting with missile technology. 

The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said that he wants his army to control military spy satellites, as these could be used to improve the accuracy of intercontinental ballistic missiles. He has made deploying such a satellite a major objective for strengthening North Korea's defense capabilities.

What happens if the Maritime Self-Defense Force gets an order to shoot down the rocket?

Japan has eight ships capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. In November 2022, Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF, or Japanese navy,) tested the system with two ships. A destroyer called the Maya detected a mock missile and a vessel named the Haguro used the data from the Maya to shoot down the target.

South Korea

Will this scare off the North Koreans from firing rockets?

The North Koreans have conducted around ten missile launches so far in 2023, some of which sparked major alarm in Japan. It is believed their last satellite launch was in 2016. They do not seem to be deterred by the fear of having a rocket shot down. However, foreign diplomats are trying to impress upon them the risks involved. 

Seoul's foreign ministry "strongly warned" North Korea against pushing ahead with its "provocations." Yoon Suk-yeol's government further called on it to abandon its "illegal launch plan" in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

"If North Korea eventually goes ahead with the launch, it will have to pay the price and suffer," the South Korean ministry said.

What else is being done to try to mitigate the risk from North Korea?

Massive joint military exercises involving the United States and South Korea are taking place 20 kilometers away from the border with the North. On May 25, reporters also watched the "largest-ever" joint live-fire exercises involving drone swarms, tanks, fighter jets, and a range of other military assets.

These were on show to demonstrate the capacity to repel and counterstrike against North Korea.

The "annihilation" drills are being held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the US-South Korean alliance. They also follow a five-day state visit to Washington by South Korea's President Yoon.

Reporter Ifang Bremer, who is based in Seoul, also witnessed the drills. He wrote: "At one point, the ROK [South Korean] army projected North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a large screen, leaving no doubt about who was the enemy in the exercise scenarios. During the drills, the allied forces blew up numerous targets arranged along a mountainside."

Is there going to be a meeting between the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un?

PM Fumio Kishida speaks at the National Rally Calling for the Immediate Return of All Abductees to Japan. May 27, 2023 in Tokyo (© Sankei by Kamoshida)

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has indicated his willingness to engage in direct dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He wants to raise the abductions issue, calling for the return of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea. 

Speaking at a rally on May 27 in Tokyo, Mr Kishida said: "Now is the time to boldly alter the status quo." No date has been set for a summit, which would depend on the North Koreans accepting the invitation. 

In recent weeks, North Korean state media has been critical of Japan, citing the rapprochement between Tokyo and Seoul as a sign that the two countries, along with the United States, are creating an "Asian version of NATO."


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Duncan Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his other articles and essays.


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