October 12, 2016 12:23 am JST
J. Berkshire Miller

Japan's growing North Korea problem

The Korean peninsula is evolving into an acute security concern for Japan, with a host of provocations this year.

U.S. President Barack Obama's policy of strategic patience with regard to the North has failed, and Pyongyang has continued to expand its capabilities in missile technology and weapons of mass destruction. Since the beginning of the year, the North has conducted two nuclear weapons tests and a barrage of ballistic missile tests aimed at refining range and accuracy.

Continued instability in the peninsula will be one of the chief international security problems that Obama's successor will inherit when he or she takes office next year. Adding to this problem is concern among U.S. allies -- including Japan -- about the credibility of Washington's treaty commitments across the region.

U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has questioned the value of U.S. alliances with Tokyo and Seoul, accusing both countries of engaging in free-riding and benefiting from Washington's security guarantees at little cost to themselves. Trump also has suggested that Japan and South Korea should look to the procurement of nuclear weapons as a potential solution to regional security threats posed by North Korea.

It seems unlikely that Trump will win the election -- especially as his campaign has spiraled out of control amongst personal scandals in recent weeks. Despite this, however, concerns about the credibility of Washington's commitment to deterrence will continue in East Asia, and North Korea will be a litmus test of U.S. solidarity with its allies going forward.

Missile threat

For Japan, the security situation in North Korea has reached a critical point. Since the beginning of the year, the North has test-fired 21 ballistic missiles, two of which two have landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone. In addition to the magnitude of the tests, there has been a marked qualitative change in the nature of Pyongyang's missile program.

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

In addition to the North's growing missile capabilities, there remains deep concern about Pyongyang's unrelenting progress on maturing its nuclear weapons program. The North continues to stockpile fissile material in the absence of any discussions on a moratorium or freeze. Meanwhile, the regime has also been working on perfecting the process of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to be fitted atop one of its missiles. The development of a credible delivery mechanism for its nuclear warhead would raise the stakes even further.

Thus far, numerous sanctions have been imposed on the North -- including unprecedented additional impositions by the United Nations Security Council earlier this year -- 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, have been effectively dead for years and would need to be repurposed in order to recommence. The fundamental issue remains the insistence of the U.S. and its allies in East Asia that the North must commit to denuclearization as a precondition for talks.

This understandable approach seemingly ignores or discounts the fact that Pyongyang has shown no indication that its nuclear weapons program is up for negotiation. Indeed, during the North's Workers Party Congress in May Kim trumpeted Pyongyang's status as a "nuclear weapons state" -- a notion that the regime believes adds to its legitimacy and provides deterrence against the U.S. and South Korea. Since Kim assumed the leadership in 2012, Pyongyang has consistently worked to improve its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capacities in defiance of protests and additional sanctions from the international community.

Adding to this cocktail of strategic challenges for Japan is an ongoing row with the North over the fate of Japan's abductees -- a group of 17 nationals kidnapped off the coast Japan and elsewhere during the 1970s and 1980s. Since retaking office in late 2012 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly met with abductees' families and has pressed for a resolution of the issue with more force and political capital than his recent predecessors. Despite the terrible optics, Abe has tried to navigate a diplomatic course with Pyongyang on the abductions issue while remaining vigilant in responding to the North's security threats.

More stick, more carrot

How should Tokyo mitigate security risks from North Korea? First, Japan must continue to work closely with its chief ally and security guarantor in Washington to ensure that its defensive capabilities are sufficient to ward off the North's threats, including nuclear blackmail. In this regard, Japan will need to fast-track improvements to the SM-3 missile defense batteries deployed on its Aegis destroyers. Tokyo is already working jointly with the U.S. on a renovated version of the SM-3 that could be fitted to its navy vessels, but this may not be deployable for a few years.

Japan should also engage in discussions internally -- and with the U.S. -- on the potential deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system in Japan. The THAAD system is slated to be deployed in South Korea, despite heavy protest 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 keep the gas pedal pushed on trilateral cooperation with the U.S. and South Korea. This cooperation, which remains critical to regional deterrence efforts, has been progressing quite well over the past several months for two reasons: the political detente between Seoul and Tokyo, and the pressing need created by the North's string of provocations. The three sides should capitalize on this space, ramping up coordination on information sharing and holding more frequent trilateral military exercises. The three parties 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 on security matters. This should be highlighted with a suite of cooperation mechanisms led by the completion of longstanding negotiations on a bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement and an Acquisition of Cross-Servicing Arrangement, which would facilitate greater support for Japan in areas such as fuel, transportation and ammunition supplies. The two sides should also engage in more frequent bilateral naval exercises and conduct bilateral discussions on regional missile defense.

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

Meanwhile, Japan should also look at balancing this tightening of the vice with an opening for Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. Up to this point, the carrot in the carrot-and-stick approach has been absent -- Washington and its allies have basically withdrawn incentives for North Korea to negotiate because of an understandable trust deficit. Despite this lack of trust, pressure and coercion alone will not lead to denuclearization in the North.

Simply put, the threat posed by North Korea to Japan is real and growing. In response to these challenges, the Abe administration will need to take a strong and active approach on mitigating security risks to Japan.

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

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