Scent of War Envelopes Japan

By Todd Crowell

Anyone watching the morning news in Tokyo might be forgiven in believing Japan is preparing to go to war. News clips show Aegis missile destroyers steaming out of port, and trucks pulling boxy-looking PAC3 missiles covered with tarpaulin. Some are deployed in Tokyo in order, we’re told, “to defend the capital.”

For the fourth time in 14 years Japan is girding for a major North Korean ballistic missile test. For several weeks Pyongyang has proclaimed its intention of launching a missile and putting a satellite into orbit on or about the 100th birthday on April 15 of North Korea’s founding president Kim Il-sung. 

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The Japanese naval ships are headed for the East China Sea, and the missile batteries are being deployed to Okinawa, as the announced trajectory appears to be due south from its launching point on North Korea’s eastern coastline, probably skirting the big island of Kyushu and passing over Japan’s southern chain of islands.

There is a considerable amount of PR bluff associated with these high-profile deployments, as it is very unlikely that any one of these missiles will be actually fired, either to bring down the North Korean satellite missile itself or to knock out one or more of the booster stages should they seem about to fall on Japanese soil.

The last time Pyongyang launched an intercontinental ballistic missile in 2009, the trajectory carried the missile due east across northern Japan. At that time too, Tokyo made a big show of moving PAC3 missiles to the region of northern Honshu to shoot down any falling debris. 

In that case Tokyo’s announced intentions were somewhat plausible as the distance over water separating the two countries was shorter and the land mass on which debris could to fall was larger. In the event, the first booster stage fell harmlessly in the ocean about 170 miles short of land, the second stage in the ocean on the far side of Japan. 

Thus there was no need to launch any PAC3, which is probably what Japanese leaders calculated. The last thing that they want to do is actually shoot down a North Korean missile, something that Pyongyang has labeled an “act of war.” They also might not want to risk the embarrassment that an unsuccessful interception might undermine the credibility of its deterrence.

The latest missile test regime will take a far more southerly flight path, over a larger area of water and a much smaller land area in Japan, which reduces the likelihood that any remnant of the missile might threaten to fall on Japan. The deployment of PAC3 batteries in Tokyo itself must be symbolic as the capital is not even close to the launch trajectory.

A look at the map shows that North Korea doesn’t have many options for firing off a long-range missile without violating some important country’s air space. They must figure if anybody is to be discomforted by the missile launch, it might was well be Japan, with which it has absolutely no current official relationship.

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Todd Crowell covered Tiananmen as Chief of Correspondents for Asiaweek. He is compiling a Dictionary of the Modern Asian Language and comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable (
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