TOKYO — Days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un launched a volley of four missiles into waters near Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is under pressure to consider obtaining the capability to destroy military targets in North Korea and other nations.
Hemmed in by a 70-year-old pacifist Constitution, Japan has avoided arming itself with long-range missiles or bomber aircraft, instead relying on the United States for the protection of its “nuclear umbrella”. But Japan is now describing its unstable neighbour as presenting a new level of threat, emboldening lawmakers seeking change.
“We should not rule out any method from consideration,” said Defence Minister Tomomi Inada in Parliament yesterday, when asked about long-range strike capability. “We don’t have that capacity now and we have no plan to obtain it.” Japan should use the deterrent effect of its alliance with the US to prevent any such attack becoming necessary, she added.
North Korea’s state-controlled Korean Central News Agency said the latest launches on Monday, overseen by Mr Kim, involved artillery units tasked with striking US bases in Japan. Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said one missile landed about 200km from Japan’s north-west coast, and Japanese public broadcaster NHK said it landed closer to the country’s coastline than in any previous exercise.
Japan already has Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) and Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) interceptors, which are aimed at halting incoming missiles. The government is also considering adopting the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, or Thaad, that the US has begun to deploy in South Korea, but it could take years before any equipment is installed.
It is unclear how these defensive systems would cope with a barrage of missiles known as a “saturation attack.”
“We may not be able to defend ourselves if North Korea launches a lot of missiles at once,” said Democratic Party lawmaker Yuichi Goto in Parliament. “I don’t understand why you don’t start (researching long-range strike capability).”
Mr Narushige Michishita, a former Japanese Defence Ministry official, holds a similar view.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend more money on Thaad,” said Mr Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
“I would rather go for acquiring better strike capability in order to strike a good balance between offence and defence.”
The debate is heating up as Japan prepares to welcome US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his first visit to Japan next week. Mr Tillerson will meet with Mr Abe, and North Korea will be an important topic of discussion, said Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida yesterday.
Japan’s concerns about its alliance with the US under President Donald Trump were to some extent assuaged by the friendly reception he offered Mr Abe when he visited last month. But some lawmakers say Japan should become more self-reliant in defence terms to avoid the uncertainty created each time the US administration changes.
“We need to get things ready so that we are not in a panic if America’s thinking suddenly changes,” said former defence minister Itsunori Onodera in an interview in January. BLOOMBERG