TOKYO -- As tensions on the Korean Peninsula reach new heights with Pyongyang's latest nuclear test, Japan is planning for a possible mass evacuation of the nearly 60,000 Japanese citizens currently living in or visiting South Korea.
"There is a possibility of further provocations," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a Monday meeting with ruling coalition lawmakers. "We need to remain extremely vigilant and do everything we can to ensure the safety of our people."
In response to North Korea's sixth nuclear test, Japan and the U.S. seek to ratchet up economic pressure on the rogue state through an oil embargo and other measures. But U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Sunday also said any threat to the U.S. or its allies "will be met with a massive military response -- a response both effective and overwhelming."
There are currently about 38,000 long-term Japanese residents in South Korea, as well as another 19,000 or so tourists and other short-term travelers. "If the U.S. decided on a military strike against the North, the Japanese government would start moving toward an evacuation on its own accord regardless of whether the American plans are public," a Japanese government source said.
Tokyo is working on a four-tier emergency plan based on the severity of the situation: discouraging unessential travel to South Korea, discouraging all travel to South Korea, urging Japanese citizens there to evacuate, and finally, urging them to shelter in place.
Should skirmishes erupt between the two Koreas, for example, the Japanese government would discourage all new travel to South Korea. At the same time, it would urge citizens already there to evacuate using commercial flights. Although the Japanese Embassy would help secure airline reservations, the government's role under this scenario would mainly be to provide information.
But Japan would need to coordinate with South Korean authorities under a shelter-in-place scenario. If Pyongyang launched a major military attack that leads to the closure of South Korean airports, the Japanese embassy would urge citizens still in the country to stay at home, or move to a safer area within the South.
Seoul has agreed to give Japanese citizens access to safe zones, such as designated subway stations, churches and shopping malls, according to a Japanese source. The Japanese government has already provided its citizens in South Korea with information on over 900 such facilities.
Bringing them home
In the event of airport closures, the best option for Japanese citizens to return home would be by sea from the southeastern port city of Busan. The Japanese government is working to obtain cooperation from U.S. forces stationed in South Korea to transport evacuees across the country from Seoul to Busan.
The Japanese Self-Defense Forces would need permission from South Korea's government to operate inside the country. Approval has not been forthcoming and could provoke a backlash from a South Korean public harboring historical grievances at the former colonial power. But SDF vessels could help in ferrying Japanese citizens home from Busan.
Such a crises could make it easier for terrorists and other dangerous individuals to enter Japan disguised as returning citizens. The Japanese government aims to work with the U.S. to prevent such unlawful entry. One proposal would create a temporary holding area for returnees in Busan or Japan.
"We are looking at a range of responses" to a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, from securing evacuees and processing their entry to creating and operating holding facilities, as well as determining whether Japan is responsible for their protection, Abe had said at a parliamentary session in April.