Features | Security | East Asia

N. Korea Crisis: A View From Tokyo

With a host of domestic challenges like a stagnant economy and its own homegrown nuclear problems, Japan has taken a cautious yet steady approach when it comes to North Korea.

By Kirk Spitzer for

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.

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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. 

Work began in earnest on a missile-defense system in 2003 and by last year Japan had spent some US$12 billion on a system that now includes four Aegis-class destroyers, ground-based Patriot PAC-3 missiles and advanced X-band radar. A joint Japan-U.S. air defense headquarters was inaugurated at Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo, last year; it ties the Japanese system to the U.S. missile defense network in the Western Pacific, which includes an array of warships, aircraft and surveillance satellites.

While avoiding specifics, Abe said this week that the JSDF is “taking every possible measure” to defend Japan. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told the JSDF to be ready to shoot down North Korea missiles, if necessary.

At least two of Japan’s Aegis destroyers, JS Kongo and JS Kirishima, deployed to the Sea of Japan last week and a third is likely to join them further south, if it hasn’t already. The warships are equipped with advanced radar and SM-3 missiles, designed to destroy ballistic missiles in the upper stage.  Two or three such ships are believed to be adequate to provide coverage for the virtually all of the Japanese archipelago.

Patriot batteries also have been set up at the Defense Ministry headquarters in downtown Tokyo – inside the Yamanote line – and at two other bases in the suburbs. Additional Patriot batteries have been set up at Japanese military bases in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan. The PAC-3s are designed to intercept missiles after re-entry and are generally used to protect military bases and population centers.

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There’s no guarantee that either system will work perfectly, of course. In four tests at a missile range in Hawaii, the Japanese Aegis system intercepted three incoming missiles, but missed one.

Still, there’s no sign of panic in Tokyo — perhaps because missile threats are the least of Japan’s problems at the moment.

Japan’s long-stagnant economy is showing the first faint glimmers of hope under Abe’s new economic policies, but it is far from certain that a turnaround has taken hold.

China continues to press its claims on islands in the East China Sea by brazenly sending maritime patrol and surveillance ships into territorial waters controlled by Japan.  Earlier this year a Chinese warship turned its fire-control radar on a Japan Maritime Self Defense Force destroyer in international waters nearby; no shots were fired, but the incident highlighted the seriousness of the confrontation.

A nuclear-armed North Korea is certainly worrisome, but the Japanese already are dealing with their own homegrown nuclear crisis. Officials announced this week that three of the seven massive storage tanks at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are leaking radioactive water. This came after the announcement last month that a 30-hour power failure at the plant was caused by rats eating through a makeshift wiring system.  It could be 40 years before engineers fully decommission the plant.

And while much of the world is alarmed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, the abduction of Japanese citizens remains at the core of Japan-North Korea relations – or lack thereof. 

After years of denial, North Korean officials admitted in 2002 to a decades-long conspiracy to kidnap Japanese citizens from their homes, workplaces and even off the streets, in part to help train agents in how to pass as Japanese. Officials apologized and allowed five victims to return home, and returned the remains of others.  But talks stalled when some of those remains turned out to be bogus.

Japan now says that at least 17 Japanese citizens were kidnapped, and has demanded a full accounting as a condition to normalizing diplomatic relations and lifting economic sanctions.

Meanwhile, the Japanese can take comfort in the U.S.-Japan defense pact, which calls for the Americans to respond if Japan comes under attack. The deployment of Japan-based F-22 fighter planes to South Korea and the demonstration flights of B-2 and B-52 bombers near the border with North Korea were widely covered in the Japanese news media and were accepted as assurance that the Americans would retaliate against North Korean for any attack on Japan.

The U.S. has already deployed at least three Japan-based Aegis warships in waters near Japan, and installed PAC-3 batteries at major military bases. It is also sending a second X-band radar system, as well as a Global Hawk unmanned surveillance plane to keep an eye on things. Further reason not to get too excited.

Kirk Spitzer is a freelance journalist and former defense correspondent for USA Today and CBS News, now based in Tokyo, and lectures in international affairs at Ferris University, in Yokohama. More of his work can be found at Time.com's Battleland blog