In its Defense of Japan 2018 White Paper, released on August 28, Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) highlighted an “unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat to Japan’s security.”
It struck a harsher tone than last year’s paper, which only spoke of “a new level of threat.”
“Since 2016 North Korea has willfully conducted three nuclear tests and launched as many as 40 ballistic missiles,” the 2018 paper said.
“These military trends in North Korea pose an unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat to Japan’s security, and significantly damage the peace and security of the region and the international community,” it continued.
It may be natural for Japan to remain vigilant against the North Korean threat, as Pyongyang is yet to abandon its nuclear weapons and existing development program – despite pledges made with the South Korean and U.S. Presidents this year.
The paper, indeed, says “there is no change in our basic recognition concerning the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles,” citing the fact that Pyongyang appears to have deployed several hundred medium-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching almost every part of Japan.
But the paper also noted it was “highly significant” that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised to pursue complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a written document at his June 12 summit with United States President Donald Trump in Singapore.
The MOD is believed to have intentionally postponed the publication of this year’s White Paper for a month to reflect this first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit.
In the world of security, it is often said that a threat consists of capabilities multiplied by intentions; if either one is zero, the threat is zero.
As Japan has pointed out, North Korea’s nuclear and missile “capabilities” must remain unchanged.
But what about North Korea’s “intentions” to pose a threat to Japan and the U.S., as it has engaged in talks with the U.S. and South Korea throughout this year? Has Pyongyang not reduced its intentions to pose an imminent threat to Japan?
This author asked this question to a defense official at a press briefing on the White Paper earlier in the week.
“It is important to closely monitor specific actions by North Korea to eliminate nuclear and missile capabilities,” they responded.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the official may be right. But then, why did the MoD in late July withdraw the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) air defense systems that had been deployed at five prefectures across Japan since August 2017 to counter the threat posed by North Korean missile launches?
The MoD removed the PAC-3 systems from Hokkaido, Shimane, Hiroshima, Ehime, and Kochi prefectures on July 30 and returned them to their respective Japan Air Self-Defense Force bases.
It also withdrew a PAC-3 battery deployed at its Tokyo headquarters in Ichigaya.
Justifying the move, one defense official told this author that North Korea would be unlikely to fire ballistic missiles at Japan, as tensions between Washington and Pyongyang have eased following the landmark U.S-North Korea summit.
Tokyo’s decision to withdraw the PAC-3 systems followed a move on June 22 to halt evacuation drills across Japan.
In addition, in June, Japan also lowered the readiness level of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF’s) destroyers from “high alert” to “24-hour notice” in advance.
Around that time, Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera said that North Korea remained a threat and that the MoD had not changed its basic views on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, as Pyongyang still has the capability to deploy ballistic missiles capable of striking anywhere in Japan.
Taking all of this into consideration, there appears to be a lack of consistency in terms of what the White Paper – and the minister – has said, and the action the MoD has taken.
Another inconsistency has come from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who during his election campaign last October repeatedly described North Korea as the greatest threat to Japan since WWII.
But his government itself has admitted there is little possibility of a U.S.-North Korea conflict.
In a lawsuit over controversial national security legislation in 2015, a representative of the government said in court that military conflict with North Korea was nothing but an “abstract and hypothetical assumption.”
The reason the government stresses the North Korean threat may be because it wants to install two Lockheed Martin Aegis Ashore land-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in the country.
Since it takes a massive amount of money (more than USD$2 billion) to install, the MoD may need to emphasize the North Korean threat to have the understanding and confidence of the Japanese people.
Yet another reason to install the Aegis Ashore missile defense system is U.S. President Donald Trump’s strong pressure on Tokyo to purchase vast quantities of weapons from the U.S., giving Japan another reason not to reduce the threat level from North Korea.
But with Prime Minister Abe hoping to meet with Kim Jong Un soon to discuss the thorny issue of abductees, and other issues of concern, Japan needs to increasingly avoid any contradiction between words and actions.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin.ru
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