As North Korean missiles fly, Japan faces ‘unprecedented’ risk
TOKYO— The anti-missile batteries deployed on the sprawling grounds of the Japanese defence ministry are a stark reminder that here, the dispute with North Korea goes beyond bombast and rhetoric.
These PAC-3 portable batteries are a version of the Patriot missiles deployed against Iraqi Scuds during the Gulf War, upgraded to defend against ballistic missiles, the kind that North Korea is now believed to have in its arsenal.
The batteries are meant to protect this sprawling city, one part of a defensive system to guard the country against anything fired from its erratic and provocative regional neighbour — a system that Japan is under pressure to upgrade in the face of North Korea’s increasingly capable missile and weapons technologies.
Experts say the chances of an actual attack are low, but North Korea’s stepped-up weapons testing — including Friday’s missile launch — and Washington’s fiery response has put many on edge here, saying the threat is now at a new level.
Ryoichi Oriki, a retired general who headed Japan’s self-defence forces, says the risk is “unprecedented.”
“It’s really a critical time of crisis on the Korean Peninsula,” said Oriki, who now serves as an executive adviser at Fujitsu.
“North Korea’s missile technology has advanced. They can achieve longer range now and they can launch a missile anywhere now. They can even place a nuclear warhead — perhaps they have the technology now. Those changes are significant and those pose serious threats, not only to East Asia,” he told the Star during an interview in his Tokyo office prior to the most recent missile launch.
Those concerns were driven home anew Friday, as Japanese residents woke to word of yet another North Korean test that sent a missile arcing high over their country’s northern island of Hokkaido.
Residents in the region were warned to take shelter while, in Tokyo, politicians protested North Korea’s continued provocations.
“It is totally unacceptable that North Korea has once again conducted such an outrageous act,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters. “We have to make North Korea understand that if it continues along this path, it will not have a bright future.”
It was a repeat of a test in August that sent a missile on a similar flight path over Hokkaido before splashing down in the northern Pacific.
And like that test — conducted with no warning — this most recent missile launch sparked civil defence warnings, normally reserved for earthquakes and tsunamis, telling Japanese residents near the flight path to take cover.
Just hours before the launch, North Korea had threatened to sink Japan. It was typical sabre-rattling from Pyongyang. But behind that bombast, an increasingly sophisticated weapons program has been taking shape.
“We cannot deny their technological advancements,” Ryusuke Wakahoi, deputy director, strategic intelligence analysis division in Japan’s defence ministry.
Friday’s missile launch was North Korea’s farthest yet. And its Sept. 3 nuclear test was its biggest to date.
“We see the technical maturity of their technologies. They may be able now to have a smaller nuclear warhead which can be mounted on the missile,” he told the Star, speaking through an interpreter.
“Based on these facts, we understand that North Korea’s threat is immediate and at a grave level,” Wakahoi said.
Until recently, Canadians tended to view the provocations of the North Korean regime as a regional problem. That perception is changing.
MPs heard this week that it’s only a matter of time before North Korea has developed a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile able to reach North America.
Although Kim Jong Un’s regime poses a “grave threat” to global security, for now there is no direct threat to Canada, federal officials told a defence committee meeting on Thursday.
“On the contrary, in recent contacts with the North Korean government . . . the indications were that they perceive Canada as a peaceful and indeed a friendly country,” Mark Gwozdecky, assistant deputy minister, international security and political affairs at Global Affairs Canada, told the committee.
That might be cold comfort given the blunt warning that the U.S. is under no obligation to defend Canada against an incoming missile — errant or deliberate — that might be headed for its northern neighbour.
“We’re being told . . . that the extant U.S. policy is not to defend Canada,” said, Lt.-Gen. Pierre St-Amand, the Canadian officer who serves as deputy commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Whether the U.S. would intercept a missile inbound to Canada is a decision that would be made by the Americans “in the heat of the moment,” he said.
While North Korea is an isolated regime, cloaked in secrecy, experts say there’s no mystery in its motives to develop advanced weapons.
“We should take what they say quite literally. They want to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state,” said Akihiko Tanaka, president of Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “I think they believe acquiring that status will guarantee the survival of the regime.”
Having nuclear capabilities and the missiles able to strike the United States resets the balance of power with Washington and helps keep the regime in place, experts say.
“I don’t believe Kim Jong Un is interested in actually using nuclear weapons but his ultimate goal is establishing this system of having ICBM and nuclear weapons so he could show them as deterrence,” Oriki said.
That view is echoed in Canada, too, where officials say North Korea is motivated by “its desire to survive.
“While their rhetoric is colourful and their behaviour occasionally strikes us as peculiar, they’re no fools and they understand the consequences of that kind of an action,” Stephen Burt, assistant chief of defence intelligence, Canadian Forces Intelligence Command, told MPs in Ottawa.
Still, U.S. President Donald Trump has openly talked of war with North Korea, vowing at one stage that threats from the isolated regime would be met with “fire and the fury like the world has never seen.”
And he has warned that, “all options are on the table.”
Here in Japan, views are divided on Washington’s tougher tone.
“The attention that the Trump administration gives to the North Korea issue is, I think, positive,” Tanaka said.
“What was called the strategic patience by the previous administration of the United States virtually allowed North Korea to do whatever it likes,” he told the Star in his university office.
Others, though, fret that Trump’s heated rhetoric is now the wild card equation.
“From the period of Bill Clinton to Bush junior to Obama, whatever the rhetoric was, the U.S. shared that this situation must be resolved by peaceable means,” said Hiroshi Nakanishi, dean of the School of Government at Kyoto University.
“The biggest change is that the rhetoric and the attitude of the Trump administration . . . (is) talking openly about the military options,” he said in his university office.
“That makes the confrontation rather different for us.”
Canada is among those pressing for diplomatic efforts to resolve tensions, warning that heated rhetoric could cause events to spin out of control. “Currently, the risk is significant that misinterpretation of intent or miscalculation could lead to an escalation, including military conflict,” Gwozdecky told the Commons’ defence committee.
And he warned that if such a conflict erupts, thousands could die “in a matter of minutes.”
Experts shudder at the prospect of Western militaries attempting to strike at North Korea, saying the cost of such a move would be horrific.
This week, the United Nations further tightened sanctions on North Korea, part of a continuing effort to use economic pressures to force the regime to comply with international orders to curb its weapons programs.
And yet the country has seemingly been able to defy past sanctions to continue weapons development at an ever-increasing pace, raising questions how North Korea is able to skirt barriers.
Tanaka said Canada and other Western nations can assist by helping developing nations that still trade with North Korea abide by sanctions.
“In many developing countries, the export control of sensitive issues is generally very, very lax,” he said. “We might co-operate to help them to make export controls more effective.”
But tightening sanctions carries its own risks. By cracking down on Chinese companies that trade with North Korea, Washington risks upsetting leaders in Beijing. “To kill one dragon, maybe we are producing another dragon,” Nakanishi said.
And the economic pain could force North Korea further into a corner, he said. “The problem is that all the options are lousy, to say the least.”
“North Korea’s missile technology has advanced. They can achieve longer range now and they can launch a missile anywhere now.” RYOICHI ORIKI RETIRED GENERAL WHO HEADED JAPAN’S SELF-DEFENCE FORCES