TOKYO -- The Ministry of Defense will soon begin discussions on whether Japan should gain the ability to strike enemy bases in self-defense amid the rising North Korean nuclear and missile threat, preparing for a major policy review in late 2018.
Japan has maintained no offensive weapons and equipment since the end of World War II as part of a defense-only policy stipulating that it may use force only when attacked -- and even then, to the minimum degree necessary for defending itself.
Yet certain politicians have long argued for a slightly more liberal definition of acceptable use of force. "Nowhere in the constitution is it written that we must calmly await our destruction in the event of an attack," then-Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama said in 1956. As the government of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sees it, a strike on a foreign missile base, for example, would fall under the umbrella of self-defense if there were no other way to prevent an attack.
Officials in the Abe government have told lawmakers during parliamentary debate that a pre-emptive strike would be permissible if a country had declared an intent to attack Japan or if it were clear that a missile attack was being prepared. But for the ministry to begin officially considering allowing such strikes would be a more significant development -- one likely to stoke discussion here and abroad as to whether pre-emptive strikes can be considered to fall within a policy of exclusive self-defense.
Even if the ministry does make provision for offensive strikes, detailed rules on exactly when to use them would need to be set, and funds for the necessary equipment obtained. But the government has started fleshing out how the provision could look. Some in the ruling coalition are calling for the deployment of American Tomahawk cruise missiles, fireable from ships or submarines at targets on land.
Hawk in power
North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons development has made deciding whether to allow pre-emptive strikes a high priority for the ministry. Pyongyang has test-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles this year, for example, and efforts to shrink a nuclear device to warhead size are underway.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's research commission on national security recommended in March that the government "immediately begin to consider" pursuing strike capability. Itsunori Onodera, the leading figure behind the recommendation, was sworn in as defense minister Thursday in a cabinet reshuffle. The ministry is now expected to start sorting out specific issues using the LDP commission's recommendations as a guide.
Abe told Onodera Thursday to work on a revision to broad defense guidelines that will set the course of Japan's national security policy for the next decade or so. Amid the growing concerns in Japan over North Korea, the ministry intends to enshrine its pre-emptive-strike policy in the guidelines, which will be reflected in the next five-year defense program the government plans to draw up in late 2018. For changes to the guidelines to be reflected in the fiscal 2019 government budget, the ministry will need to make the appropriate funding requests next summer and so aims to wrap up its strike capability discussion by then.
"North Korea's missile technology is advancing," Onodera told reporters Friday. The ministry "will thoroughly consider what is necessary to defend against ballistic missiles," he said, noting that the LDP recommendation will be looked into as part of the process.