As North Korean mis­siles fly, Ja­pan faces ‘un­prece­dented’ risk

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - Bruce Cam­pion-Smith In Ja­pan

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

BRUCE CAM­PION-SMITH/TORONTO STAR

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