As we all know, Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test in January this year, and it followed that up with a number of missile launches. It would be easy to miss the significance of those missile tests since many were failures. What needs to be recognized, however, is that every failure is still a learning opportunity for the North and that soon enough North Korea will be successful in developing a delivery system for its nuclear weapons.
In the past, Pyongyang has overflown Japan with its tested missiles. This violation of Japan’s sovereign airspace has bothered not only Japan but other nations as well. There have been rumblings in Japan and South Korea – as well as in the U.S. in the past, as it recently came to light – of preemptive strikes to disable or destroy North Korea’s nuclear sites.
North Korea’s nascent ability to place miniaturized nuclear devices atop either road-mobile or submarine-launched missiles rightfully worries Japan. In considering whether the U.S. will continue its East Asian presence, thereby offering the reassurance of its nuclear umbrella, Japan must tend to its self-defense responsibilities.
Such deliberations have come to the fore in Japan recently with the news that preemptive strikes are an open topic of debate among members of the Liberal Democratic Party. In reality, politicians from many nations have been quietly discussing the potential for such measures periodically for decades.
ARTICLE 9 OF JAPAN’S CONSTITUTION
The matter is not as straightforward as one might at first suspect
The dilemma facing Japan is due to the question about the legality of preemptive first strikes as a defense against a perceived imminent missile attack from Pyongyang. The matter is not as straightforward as one might at first suspect. To understand, we need to return to the end of World War II when Japan’s constitution came into being.
After deliberation, Japan was given the opportunity to develop its own pacifist governing document, but a lack of timely progress taxed the patience of U.S. General MacArthur, who oversaw the occupation of post-war Japan. It was not long before the U.S. put forth its own version of a constitution. With few modifications ultimately made by the Japanese, it essentially came to be the constitution of Japan as we know it today.
Article 9 of Japan’s constitution in its official English translation reads in part that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”
In view of how the constitution came into being, some might therefore ask whether Japan can modify it. It needs to be understood that with the Treaty of San Francisco of 1951 between Tokyo and Washington, the U.S. ceased to be an occupying power, and Japan became a sovereign state in its own right. No foreign entity controls how Japan amends or interprets its constitution. It belongs to the Japanese polity, who surely has the right to change its own constitution as it sees fit to accommodate a changing world. The question thus becomes a moral or just decision, not a legal one.
JUST WAR THEORY
Resources most often used in understanding acts of war and responses to them are essays on Just War,* which attempt to establish limits regarding the use of force and when the use of force is just. One notion is that a threat must have been executed before any retaliatory action may be taken. That is, a nation may not react to an attack that is yet to come, and it must wait until the attack has occurred before taking any retaliatory measures. A threat that is merely perceived does not qualify.
The problem with Just War Theory is that is only that: a theory
But wait, you might say, that is not prudent – and in certain situations this writer would agree. The problem with Just War Theory is that is only that: a theory. Moreover, it is one that has been developed predominantly by philosophers and theologians, a group generally lacking practical experience in hostile international relations. Further, much of the foundation for Just War Theory was written before weapons of mass destruction deliverable by intercontinental missiles made it possible to routinely translate threats into attacks in mere minutes.
Waiting for such threats to become reality severely limits reaction time and could result in the complete elimination of a nation’s ability to defend itself, let alone retaliate even when response is justified. So how does one discriminate between an imminent attack and mere bluster – particularly in light of North Korea’s bellicose verbal posture over the years? Well, any discussion must begin with admitting that there has been no large-scale attack since the armistice of the Korean War more than 60 years ago.
Still, there have been significant events in those intervening years that could easily have led to open warfare. The interested reader is reminded of a few North Korean provocations:
- the 1965 MiG attack on a U.S. RB-47 aircraft in international airspace
- the 1968 assassination team raid on the South Korean presidential residence
- the 1969 shoot down of a U.S. EC-121aircraft in international airspace
- the 1983 attempt in Rangoon on the life of the visiting South Korean president
- the 2010 sinking of the Korean naval vessel Cheonan
Would a preventative first strike intended to eliminate any perceived similar attack in the future serve only to destabilize Northeast Asia? What about simply opening up a discussion of such action? The answer is, unfortunately, that even just debating the legality and propriety of first strikes could undermine regional stability.
But it seems unreasonable that a nation has to suffer catastrophic damage from a North Korean attack before responding. What if there is credible evidence that warns of an impending attack, and a nation has time to nullify it by preemptive strike, thus saving thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of lives of its own citizens? These are questions that are not easily answered – circumstances are often not black or white.
This dilemma distills to a case of theoretical philosophy encountering real-world situations, when intellectual discussion in a non-hostile and leisurely environment must accommodate time-critical defensive decision-making in the field.
When the safety of a nation’s citizens is at stake, the temptation to strike first is always present – but that raises the question of how to tell if the first strike was indeed warranted. Forensic evidence can yield clues, if not outright answers. Through various means of intelligence, one could examine the destroyed enemy positions to determine just how close to battle plan execution they were – for example, missiles fueled and on positioned gantries ready for launch, or detonators and safety fuses inserted into nuclear devices ready for deployment.
No one wants to give North Korea any excuse to point the finger of accusation at another nation for an unwarranted attack – even in light of North Korea’s past provocations and current threats. Yet no one wants to allow North Korea to strike first. Undeniably, these are difficult decisions – and critics need to walk in the shoes of those responsible for national defense before judging.
So, let the arguments pro and con proceed.
* A good if dense treatment of Just War for current times is Just War and International Order: the Uncivil Condition in World Politics by Nicholas Rengger published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press.
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Featured Image: Seventh Ministerial Meeting on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) by The Official CTBTO Photostream on 2014-09-26 15:09:59