N. Korea Crisis: A View From Tokyo

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TOKYO – Japanese leaders have maintained a steady, low-key demeanor during the latest North Korean crisis. That’s unlikely to change even if, as expected, their erratic neighbor launches a ballistic missile or two in the coming days.

That shouldn’t be surprising. When you have a powerful ally, a US$12 billion missile defense system and a domestic agenda that’s as daunting as anything likely to rocket in from across the Sea of Japan, there’s no sense in getting too excited.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December with a hawkish reputation. But he has focused largely on economic and domestic issues instead, and has been content to let the U.S. take the lead in the contest with North Korea. Abe has urged restraint, stressed policy coordination with allies, and ordered robust but minimum military preparations.

The threat facing Japan is real, of course. While North Korea may or may not have missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland, and may or may not be able to attach nuclear warheads to them, it can certainly strike Japan by at least convential means.

The North is believed to have at least 320 Rodong missiles with a range of 1,300 kilometers. That’s within easy reach of most of Japan’s major cities. Experts believe that if a Rodong were aimed at the center of Tokyo, it would have a 50-50 chance of landing inside the Yamanote line, the busy commuter railway that circles the city.

At least two Musudan missiles with even longer ranges reportedly have been moved to North Korea’s east coast. South Korean officials expect the North to test-fire one or both by April 15, the anniversary of the birth of the country's late founder Kim Il-Sung.

North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapons test in February, in defiance of UN resolutions. Though estimated at only about half the yield of the Hiroshima bomb or less, North Korea claims it exploded a “miniaturized and lighter nuclear device." Both the Rodong and Musudan missiles normally carry a conventional warhead, but fitted with even a small nuclear device, they could cause catastrophic damage.

So far, most of the North’s invective has been aimed at the United States or South Korea. But it has threatened to attack U.S. bases in Japan and warned that support for U.S. policies could lead to Japan’s “self-destruction.”

Japan’s pacifist Constitution forbids offensive military operations, so a pre-emptive strike would seem to be out (a case could be made that attacking launch sites in advance of a North Korean strike could be considered a defensive measure).

That doesn’t mean Japan is defenseless, however. Tokyo has been aware of the threat since 1998, when North Korea lobbed a ballistic missile over the main islands.  It was a traumatic experience for the Japanese, who already suspected that North Korean agents had been kidnapping citizens and conducting espionage along Japan’s northwest coast. 

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