October 20, 2016 12:00 pm JST
J. Berkshire Miller

It's time for Japan to get serious about Pyongyang's nuclear threat

The Korean Peninsula is evolving into an acute security concern for Japan. Since the beginning of the year, North Korea has test-fired 21 ballistic missiles, two of which have landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone. There has also been a qualitative change in the missile program.

In June, for example, the North launched a Musudan missile that crossed the threshold of interception capabilities from Japan's Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan. This has exposed long-standing vulnerabilities in Japan's missile defense architecture and put more pressure on its land-based PAC-3 -- or Patriot -- batteries as a final line of defense.

In addition, Pyongyang is making steady progress on maturing its nuclear weapons program, stockpiling fissile material and perfecting miniaturization of a nuclear warhead. A credible delivery mechanism would raise the stakes further.

Numerous sanctions have been imposed, but there has been little change in the thinking of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The Six-Party Talks, in which the U.S. was joined in discussions with the North by Japan, China, South Korea and Russia, are effectively dead because Pyongyang refuses to commit to denuclearization as a precondition for substantive negotiations.

Adding to this cocktail of strategic challenges for Japan is an ongoing row with the North over the fate of Japan's abductees -- 17 nationals kidnapped during the 1970s and 1980s.

How should Tokyo mitigate these security risks? First, Japan must ensure that its defensive capabilities are sufficient to ward off the North's threats, including nuclear blackmail. The top priority should be to fast-track improvements to the SM-3 missile defense batteries deployed on the Aegis destroyers.

Missile defence

Tokyo should also talk to the U.S. about the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in Japan. THAAD is slated to be deployed in South Korea, despite strong protests from China, sometime in the coming year. THAAD could provide Japan with a third layer of ballistic missile defense alongside its Aegis and PAC-3 capabilities.

Second, Tokyo needs to press forward on trilateral cooperation with the U.S. and South Korea. This has been progressing quite well recently because of the political detente between Seoul and Tokyo and the pressing need created by the North's string of provocations. The three sides should ramp up coordination on information sharing and hold more frequent military exercises. They should also begin tangible discussions on an effective regional missile defense strategy.

Third, Tokyo needs to complement its trilateral efforts with a separate -- but linked -- bilateral channel to Seoul. This should include the completion of negotiations on a General Security of Military Information Agreement and an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Arrangement, which would facilitate greater support for Japan in areas such as fuel and ammunition supplies. The two sides should also hold more frequent naval exercises and discuss regional missile defense.

Fourth, Tokyo should coordinate with Seoul and Washington on pushing for sanctions with greater bite -- including penalties for banks that deal with North Korea. The sanctions might not pass the U.N. Security Council because of Chinese opposition, but the three sides can work toward multilateral sanctions that would further tighten the screws on the North.

Meanwhile, Japan should consider balancing this with an opening for Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. Washington and its allies have withdrawn incentives for North Korea to talk because of a trust deficit. But pressure and coercion alone will not lead to denuclearization.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a fellow specializing in East Asia at the EastWest Institute, an organization focused on conflict resolution, in New York.

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