Scent of War Envelopes Japan

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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. 

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.


The 1998 test flight came as a surprise, but in 2009 the North at least advised the International Maritime Organization of the anticipated splashdown points of the first and second booster stages (the third was supposed to go into orbit, it but also fell into the North Pacific). This year they have gone further by inviting people, including some international press, to witness the launch.

In a way North Korea is the one taking the risk that the vaunted technological achievement will not turn out to be a another dud. North Korea’s history of long-range missile launches (as opposed to more successful medium- and short-range missiles) is poor. Of course, the people of North Korea know nothing about these failures.

Its first launch in 1998 failed to put a satellite in orbit. Pyongyang claimed one was circling the Earth broadcasting patriotic songs, but organizations that keep watch on these things, such as the North American Air Defense Command, said they could not verify that anything was put in orbit.

Another purported launch in 2006 ended quickly when the missile exploded, or was deliberately blown up only minutes after launch. The 2009 test launch also failed to put a satellite in orbit. Some experts even doubt the validity of its purported 2006 nuclear bomb test, the yield being so low as to suggest that it fizzled out.

Nonetheless, North Korea’s long-range missile program has had consequences both in Japan and the U.S. The 1998 test shocked Japan and prompted Tokyo to increase its defense measures. In 2003, it launched the first of two satellites to garner intelligence on North Korea and agreed to allow Washington to deploy Patriot missile interceptors at U.S. bases in Japan.

Some conservative Japanese politicians argued that Japan needed to obtain cruise missiles, and that a preemptive strike on a North Korean missile site would be within the parameters of self-defense as its war-renouncing constitution is interpreted. American leaders, especially in the second Bush administration, have used the North’s ballistic missile threat to argue for the need to develop and deploy anti-missile defenses.

Over the years, Japan has tightened its bilateral sanctions on the north, such as ending regular ferry services, to the point where it has few, if any, real options left. Many of these Japanese sanctions stem from a more parochial dispute over kidnapped citizens. North Korea is the only UN member with which Japan has no formal relations.

The past three long-range missile launches have had certain things in common. They all took place while negotiations were underway. In 1998, North Korean diplomats were actually in New York. This launch comes after it appeared there was some progress with Pyongyang agreeing in principle to allow nuclear inspectors back into the country. 

They have also occurred near important elections in the U.S. and South Korea. This one, of course, takes place during a year when both the U.S. and South Korea will be choosing presidents. And the South’s National Assembly election takes place within a week of the purported launch date. It may be a part of North’s patented one-step forward, two-steps backward negotiating style.

Then again, it may simply be a way of honoring the legendary founder who is North Korea’s “eternal president.” What better birthday present than a satellite orbiting the world broadcasting “Song of Kim Il-sung,” as if it were emanating from heaven. All they have to do is get the blessed thing in orbit.

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