Japan is facing a new level of military threat from North Korea following the launch of a surveillance satellite on November 21. After two previous failed attempts in May and August, North Korea’s spy satellite is in orbit, as confirmed by the U.S Space Force, although its capabilities remain unknown. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is celebrating the country’s “new era of space power” and promised to launch “multiple” satellites in the coming future.
In Japan, Defense Minister Kihara Minoru stated that the government is currently analyzing the performance capacity of the satellite. But he conceded that it could be a sign of North Korea’s progressing military technology, which poses a threat to regional and international security. This week Kihara told reporters at an air base in Tokyo that Japan must strengthen its space operation capacity within 10 years and develop a system for space superiority.
For years the United Nations Security Council has been divided over how to deal with North Korea. An emergency U.N. Security Council meeting in New York held in response to the launch failed to produce a U.N. resolution, which Japan was hoping for. A number of Security Council members condemned North Korea’s provocative activities, but the vetoes held by China and Russia have prevented any unified action.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the new satellite is intended to monitor the military activities of the United States and other countries. In a statement, North Korea justified it as an “exercise of a lawful right to self-defense.” Pyongyang said the space-based surveillance capability is needed to “accurately grasp the military trends of the United States and its followers,” citing the United States’ repeated deployment of nuclear-capable assets to the Korean Peninsula. Already, North Korea has claimed to be reviewing images of the White House, Pentagon and U.S. military bases in Guam transmitted by its new satellite.
North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions for its ballistic missile and nuclear programs since 2006. This includes a ban on the development of ballistic missiles, the same technology used to launch a satellite into orbit. However, Russia and China defended the satellite launch, preventing any unanimous action.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu said, “It is deeply regrettable that the Security Council failed to act on serious provocations and repeated violations of Security Council resolutions due to the reluctance of some countries.”
The emergency meeting descended into a heated sparring match between U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield and North Korean envoy Kim Song over the escalation of tensions. In a rare appearance at the U.N. Security Council, North Korea said its military action is defensive in nature against U.S hostility, which Greenfield firmly rejected.
The satellite launch has triggered a sense of national urgency that has Japan looking to an unlikely neighbor – China. On November 26, the foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea met in Busan, the first such meeting in four years. The North Korean satellite launch was high on the agenda. According to the Japanese readout, “the three Ministers exchanged views in light of North Korea’s recent launch using ballistic missile technology for the purpose of satellite launch.”
After the meeting, Japan’s Foreign Minister Kamikawa Yoko reiterated that cooperation with China would be an important part of addressing North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.
The foreign ministers also pledged to speed up the groundwork for the first three-way summit. Kamikawa said she saw the meeting as an “opportunity to restart cooperation among the three countries from a broad perspective.”
Japan, the United States, and South Korea have put forth a united front condemning North Korea’s spy satellite launch. But existing sanctions and deterrence have failed to curtail the regime’s technological advancements. Remarks by the U.S. and North Korea at the latest U.N. Security Council meeting only reinforced the diplomatic stalemate and the risk of tit-for-tat aggressive moves.
For Japan, a diplomatic route may mean sidestepping U.S. North Korea policy for engagement with its closest neighbors.