On September 3, North Korea conducted what they called a “hydrogen bomb test.” As with the missile test that flew past Hokkaido on August 29, this latest display of weapons of mass destruction launched without advance notice was not really a “test” but clearly a “threat.” This was the 6th nuclear test, and their 13th missile launch this year alone.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly dubbed the nuclear test “unacceptable,” and proclaimed that “we are maintaining a high alert.” President Donald Trump took to Twitter, writing that the North’s behavior was “very hostile and dangerous to the United States.”
After last week’s missile launch, the United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting. Members unanimously criticized North Korea, including assent from China and Russia, and resolved to strengthen sanctions. But the Kim regime was unmoved, and it is reported that they are planning to continue launching trajectory missiles.
This is becoming a pattern: provocation by North Korea, and a response from Japan and the US or the Security Council. How long can America and Japan repeat this pattern? While the sanctions stalemate continues, North Korea becomes more and more menacing as it develops its nuclear capabilities.
It is past time for Japan and America to rethink their North Korea strategy.
It should go without saying that North Korea is expecting not to fall in line for what others want from it. Not many nations believe that China and Russia will abide faithfully by the Security Council resolution and sanction North Korea. If China blocked its exports of oil to the North, Russia would fill the void, and if the North could not export to China, they would then to Russia. Even if China and Russia assent to strengthened sanctions in name, in reality they will continue to find workarounds.
It’s in the interest of China and Russia to prevent at any cost the American and Japanese sanctions on North Korea from causing the regime to crumble. For China and Russia, North Korea is a buffer zone separating their borders from the American armies stationed in South Korea. Accordingly, China opposes the American-led sanctions on North Korea, including those taken under the name of the United Nations.
Where is Our Red Line?
It was assumed that North Korea’s intercontinental missile (ICBM) test on July 4 had crossed America’s “red line,” but President Trump has not moved. It was thought that nuclear tests and military launches landing in front of military bases would also be a “red line” for America. Although Trump has continued his bombastic statements, the focus is on Defense Secretary James Mattis’ desire to reach a diplomatic compromise. The military option would have a human cost not only for North Korea, but also potentially for South Korea and Japan, so America needs to use discretion.
Regardless of this situation, the assumption that if Japan, America, and the United Nations strengthen sanctions on the North now, then the North will eventually abandon its nuclear and missile programs has basically become meaningless.
As North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities rise, some in the US are beginning to suggest that the North should simply be permitted to keep nuclear weapons, but permission would be no guarantee that the North would no longer be a menace. It seems that this will be one of the focuses of future negotiations.
Some in the US are beginning to raise the question of whether Japan or Korea should have nuclear missiles of their own, but this would constitute the departure of these nations from America’s “nuclear umbrella” and a weakening of the American alliances. Furthermore, political opinion is divided in Japan over the question of deploying nuclear missiles on Japanese soil, and this is a cause of instability. The Japan-America alliance is therefore necessary to keep Japan under America’s “nuclear umbrella.”
Japan Needs the Capacity to Strike
But on points other than this, Japan must actively progress in defense and diplomacy. Japan’s attitude toward the North is essentially defensive, monitoring missiles and deploying its own missiles for interception only, avoiding any offensive deployment. We only do demonstrations of our capabilities during practices with the America, and never make threats or other acts of intimidation.
Thus, North Korea has begun not fearing. But now Japan must change this situation and consider measures that will raise awareness that threats by North Korea against Japan will be met with a response greater than economic sanctions. To that end, for example, we should be capable of a Tomahawk strike on an enemy base, laser-based missile interception, or a cyber attack on missile launch facilities.
Before long, America will surely want to take out the North’s ICBMs as a matter of “self-defense.” If that happens, we can assume that victory will go to America’s overwhelming military force. Japan and Korea may suffer in the process, but if America sides military force appropriately, the damage can be minimized accordingly. But at the same time, we must prepare the Japan Self-Defense Forces to be able to assist the Americans under grave conditions that risk Japan’s security.
By that logic, Japan must take the stance that a nuclear threat is a threat to its very existence. We must recognize that Japan is engaging with a crisis in survival.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)
Dr. Masashi Nishihara is president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security. Previously, he served as president of the National Defense Academy, where he was also a professor of international relations. Among others, Nishihara is a member of the Trilateral Commission as well as the U.K.-Japan 21st Century Group. From 2004 to 2006, he served as a member of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission chaired by former Swedish Foreign Minister Hans Blix. Nishihara has published extensively on Japanese foreign and security policy issues and has contributed to international newspapers.
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