Tokyo has thus far kept a low profile as Seoul and Washington responded to the steady stream of threats emanating from Pyongyang. Today, however, as governments around the region prepare for a likely missile launch, and perhaps even another nuclear test, the Abe cabinet announced serious preparations to defend Japan against possible attack.
This round of escalatory tensions emanating from Pyongyang has been a source of deep concern for Japan. Yet the Abe cabinet has maintained quiet vigilance, largely in an effort not to contribute to the dangerous dynamics surrounding the peninsula. Tokyo has been a strong supporter in sanctioning North Korean proliferation. Japanese negotiators worked closely with South Korean and U.S. negotiators to develop sanctions in the wake of the missile test last December, although Japan is not involved directly in UN Security Council deliberations. After the February nuclear test, Japan too reinforced its unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang.
Recent events, however, have stimulated a more proactive defense response from Tokyo. In particular, the threat to target U.S. military bases in the region and in the Pacific has worried Japanese security planners. To date, Kim Jong-un’s regime seemed focused on threatening the United States directly, but North Korea’s assertion that it will use its intermediate range Musudan missiles to launch attacks against U.S. military facilities and personnel in the region puts Japan firmly in the midst of this growing crisis. Japan hosts around 45,000 U.S. forward deployed forces, with bases in northern Honshu as well as the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.
This morning, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihida Suga, announced that the prime minister had placed Japan’s Self-Defense Force on “full alert status.” Japan’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, had already ordered the Self-Defense Force to mobilize for missile defense. The Maritime Self-Defense Force deployed two AEGIS destroyers to the Sea of Japan, and the Air Self-Defense Force readied its land-based PAC-3 missile interceptors.
This is the fourth time Japan has initiated its highest state of defense readiness in response to North Korea’s missile threat. The first was in March 2009, and the second and third in response to missile launches in April and December last year. Each of these followed an announcement by Pyongyang of plans to launch a satellite. This is the first defense order issued by Japan without any stated intention to launch by North Korea.
The idea that Pyongyang could launch a strike without warning prompted this quiet effort to mobilize Japan’s response. There was no cabinet security council meeting nor did forces easily detectable by the North activate their weapons. Since U.S. and South Korean forces also moved into high alert as the North moved its mobile missile launchers carrying the Musudan to its Sea of Japan coast, Tokyo decided that it too could now announce its readiness to the Japanese people.
All of Japanese territory, including vital U.S. military bases, is within the expected range of the Musudan missile. Regardless of Pyongyang’s target, a launch from North Korea’s east coast almost guarantees the trajectory of the missile will be over Japanese territory. The Japanese government will use its national early warning system (J-ALERT) to inform the public at the time of launch, and will be in close contact with U.S. forces in the region.