North Korea’s Missile Over Japan Bolsters Abe’s Quest for Stronger Defense

  • North Korean threat stands to boost calls for missile shield
  • Abe has seen his poll numbers slump from recent scandals

North Korea’s Missile Over Japan Likely Not ICBM

Kim Jong Un might have done Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a little favor.

The North Korean leader’s move to fire a ballistic missile over Japan’s northern Hokkaido island on Tuesday put the spotlight on Abe, whose popularity has slumped after a series of scandals. Abe quickly adopted a hardline stance, calling the launch an “unprecedented, grave and serious threat” and requesting an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

“Generally these types of crises are good for the government,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus. “It looks like he’s doing something, and it’s hard for the opposition to criticize.”

It’s unclear if Kim intended the launch to send a message to Abe, or whether he wanted to test out certain aspects of the missile’s flight, which by necessity took it over Japan. Kim had threatened to launch missiles over southern Japan toward Guam earlier this month, and on Wednesday North Korea’s state-run news agency quoted him as saying the latest test-firing was a "meaningful prelude" to containing the American territory.

Either way, it is likely to increase support for a stronger Japanese military, a key issue for Abe as he seeks to become the country’s longest-serving leader. He has steadily boosted defense spending since taking office in 2012, and sought to change the pacifist constitution that has defined Japan’s security policy since World War II.

The missile is also set to harden the mood in Japan for talks with North Korea. That could exacerbate differing approaches between Abe’s conservative government in Tokyo and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who favors dialogue with North Korea.

After speaking with U.S. President Donald Trump for 40 minutes on Tuesday, Abe said the leaders agreed to increase pressure on North Korea, and reiterated that China and Russia needed to do more to rein in Kim’s regime. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said now’s the time to push Pyongyang.

In Tokyo on Tuesday the mood was relatively calm. Commuters on morning trains were checking the news on their smartphones, but services ran as normal and there was no sense of panic. Japan’s benchmark Topix index closed 0.2 percent lower, but pared its initial fall.

Sirens sounded around 6 a.m. local time in Hokkaido, with alerts on loudspeakers warning residents that a missile had been fired. The projectile’s sea splashdown was announced later to ease fears.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tuesday that no order to shoot down the missile was issued because Japan determined that it wasn’t aimed at its territory.

“A shoot-down must have a verifiable defensive purpose,” said Michael Cucek, an adjunct fellow at Temple University. “When a missile is 500 kilometers above your territory on a trajectory to land in the ocean, an attempted shoot-down is a purely political act."

Current Systems

Still, the launch will increase calls for missile defense, he said. Any extra spending will likely be included in an additional budget next year.

Japan already has a two-phase ballistic-missile defense system, consisting of land-based PAC-3 interceptors and Aegis-equipped ships carrying SM-3 interceptors. Deployment of the U.S.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield appears off the table for the time being.

Japan’s Defense Ministry will this week seek a 2.5 percent increase in its budget for the 2018 financial year, including an allocation for the Aegis Ashore missile defense system, local media reported. It will also set aside funds to upgrade its automatic alert control system because North Korea is increasingly firing missiles on a lofted trajectory, the reports said.

In a break with a long-running cautious defense stance, members of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party have called for Japan to arm itself with long-range offensive weapons. The group, which included the now-defense minister, released a document in March that cited a “new level of threat” from North Korea.

Obstacles Remain

Still, there are limits to the public’s appetite to strengthen the military. While the needle has moved slightly in favor of a discussion on gaining counter-strike capabilities, the obstacles “remain salient,” according to Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Washington.

“Preemptive strike capabilities would be too heavy a lift for Japan right now and counter-strike or retaliatory capabilities are more reasonable,” he said. “But even they would be logistically difficult and time consuming.”

For the time being, Japan has little choice but to remain reliant on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” for protection against North Korea. That means that Trump’s reaction may weigh on the public perception of Abe, according to Harris.

The president issued a statement early Tuesday U.S. time saying North Korea had signaled contempt for its neighbors. “Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world,” Trump said, reiterating that “all options are on the table.”

“Voters may be even more interested in how Abe manages the U.S. in this situation than in how he manages North Korea,” Harris said. “The reality is that for the short to medium term, Japan’s best defense is ensuring that the U.S. extended deterrence remains intact.”

— With assistance by Yuki Hagiwara, and Kana Nishizawa

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