TETSUSHI TAKAHASHI, Head of Nikkei’s China Headquarters–Since North Korea sent an intercontinental ballistic missile soaring 3,700km into the sky on July 28, Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump have spoken by phone six times — sometimes for close to an hour. In each of these conversations between the Japanese prime minister and the U.S. president, Trump has gone to great lengths to offer assurances that the U.S. stood behind Japan “100%.” He sometimes repeated the phrase as many as five times in a single call, according to Japanese government sources.
PAC-3 missiles are deployed at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo on Aug. 29. (Photo by Koichi Mimura)
For Abe, who has sought to build strong ties with Trump since his election, the president’s words were a welcome change from the rhetoric of his campaign, when he frequently attacked the cost of U.S. defense commitments in Asia. Despite Trump’s assurances, however, Japanese political and military leaders have started to question the strength of the security compact that has underpinned the relationship between the U.S. and Japan in the postwar era. Under its pacifist constitution — which Abe would amend if he could — Japan relies on the U.S. to carry out offensive military strikes. But a North Korea equipped with nuclear ICBMs might change the equation: Could the Americans still be counted on to fight for Japan if doing so carried the risk of losing Los Angeles or New York?
“When North Korea has been armed with nuclear weapons, the security regime under the current Japan-U.S. alliance, however strong, may be unable to fully protect Japan’s safety,” said a security-related Japanese government official.
Japan is not the only country in the region questioning decades old policies and alliances as North Korea moves closer to developing nuclear missile capability. Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s unpredictable 33-year-old leader, has gone out of his way this year to provoke China’s president, Xi Jinping. That has prompted some in Beijing who had previously tolerated the regime’s behavior to conclude that he must be reined in. In Seoul, President Moon Jae-in has agreed to allow the deployment of U.S. anti-missile launchers, reversing a key campaign pledge, amid concerns of a split between his administration and Trump’s. And in Tokyo, military planners say the country’s missile defense system requires an urgent, and costly, upgrade to deal with the new threat.
Some Japanese security experts predict Pyongyang could be able to deploy the weapons within two years or even sooner — a time frame that is not expected to move much even after the new sanctions passed by the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 11. If North Korea succeeds in developing nuclear missile technology, Asia could witness an arms buildup unlike anything seen since the Cold War, experts say. China has complained loudly about Moon’s decision to deploy more of the U.S. anti-missile launchers in South Korea, and any increase in Japan’s capacity also would be seen in Beijing as a threat to its security.
“Calls are growing in South Korea for acquiring nuclear weapons in response to the North Korean threat. Japan is also talking about deploying Aegis missiles on its own mainland,” said Masao Okonogi, a North Korea expert and professor at Tokyo International University. “No matter how they do it, their military buildup will increase tensions in the region, especially vis-a-vis Russia and China.”
Okonogi and others say they do not expect a nuclear “domino effect” in the region, given Japan’s firm opposition to the weapons and South Korea’s commitments under the non-proliferation treaty. But any friction over military expansions would add new risks in an already tense region, where disputes over territorial claims, fishing rights and China’s island-building have sparked periodic conflicts in recent years.
“I don’t think the region becomes more stable” in the coming years, said Tetsuo Kotani, senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. “There may be more chances for accidents.”
HOW MANY MISSILES IS ENOUGH? It has been an anxious summer. Trump’s vow on Aug. 8 to deliver “fire and fury like the world has never seen” — followed by North Korea’s promise to consume Guam, home to a U.S. military base, in “enveloping fire” — raised worries that the two leaders could be on the brink of war. South Koreans, who over the years have become accustomed to erratic and threatening behavior from the North, have grown worried, with 76% saying in a poll last week that North Korea’s latest nuclear test threatens to disrupt the peace on the peninsula. And in Japan, the anxiety came to a head at 6 a.m. on Aug. 29, when a ballistic missile flew across the island of Hokkaido before falling into the Pacific Ocean. The launch triggered a J-Alert, the national emergency system, with residents in the northern part of the country receiving a text from the government reading “Missile passing.”
Few in Tokyo military circles think North Korea would carry out a pre-emptive strike on Japan with nuclear missiles. The concern is more that a conflict on the Korean Peninsula could escalate to the degree that it triggers a nuclear attack by the North. There is another worry: that Trump could launch military action against North Korea without consulting Japan first. This is one reason Abe tries to speak to the U.S. president as often as possible.