Bulletin

An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

Expert views: North Korean missile launch

On 29 August, North Korea stoked tensions in the region after it launched a missile over northern Japan. Five commentators speak about the reactions of Japanese people, the likely impact on Japan and its relationship with Asia-Pacific countries, and the possible solutions to the threat.

North Korean soldier at DMZ

Panic, then business as usual

Rumi Sakamoto, Head of Asian Studies, University of Auckland:

North Korean missile launches towards the direction of Japan are nothing new. This is the fifth missile (though North Korea called the previous ones “satellites”) that has gone over Japan since 1998. 

What was different this time was the government’s use of J-Alert, a satellite-based warning system via mobile network and other media, which woke up residents in Hokkaido and Tohoku at about 6am local time, urging them to evacuate to a safe building. Since it was the first time the J-alert was used, there was a sense of emergency and anxiety. Several minutes after the missile landed in the water, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the nation the missile posed the most serious threat to date – a message repeated by the media throughout the day.

Once the immediate uncertainty and anxiety passed, at least outside the government and media, it was largely business as usual. The missile flew over the north of the country at a height of 550km – which is outside of Japanese airspace. It was not “aimed” at Japan, and it went over an area which is not densely populated. People complained about being woken up early in the morning and questioned the usefulness of a warning that came only minutes before the missile passed over Japan. Some suspected the government used the J-Alert to raise a sense of threat to garner public support to increase future military budgets, and/or to revise the constitution. At any rate, there hasn’t been a national panic or excessive reaction among Japanese people, although recent missiles have raised their interest in defence matters. Despite the media labelling the missile launch as an "unprecedented threat", the general concensus in Japan seems to be that war should be avoided in favour of a diplomatic solution.

Another reason for the lack of extreme panic is the view that the 29 August missile launch was more about North Korea wanting to pressure the US to negotiate over its nuclear programme. It's not directly about Japan. Of course, Japan is a US ally and there are many US bases in Japan. But the launch is seen in terms of the increasing tension between North Korea and the US, and the pattern of North Korea repeatedly creating crises to bring the US to the negotiating table.

This latest missile launch displays the pace of technological advancement in North Korea and reinforces the need for Japan to work with the US, South Korea, China and Russia. While Japan was reassured the US was "100% with Japan" during Abe's 40-minute phone conversation with President Donald Trump, some media have expressed scepticism, considering Trump’s “America First” policy.

Views from Japanese media

Tadashi Iwami, Lecturer, IPU New Zealand Tertiary Institute, Palmerston North:

I looked into how four major newspapers – the two largest, Yomiuri and Asahi, as well as the Mainichi and Sankei – reported on the missile in their coverage on 30 August.

All the newspapers agreed that North Korea’s missile launch was, as Prime Minister Shino Abe said, “an unprecedented, serious and grave threat that seriously undermines regional peace and security”. They also recognised that the J-Alert played an important role in warning Japanese people.

Most editorials noted the need to pay close attention to North Korea’s founding day on 9 September.

The right-leaning Yomiuri and Sankei held the view that Japan must build better, more operable and more efficient defensive capabilities. They also suggested the possiblility of Japan acquiring military capabilities to attack enemy bases. The Sankei stressed that Japan needed to upgrade its defence position from defensive to proactive.

The left-leaning Asahi and Mainichi inclined towards multilateral resolutions. The Asahi placed importance on the role of the UN Security Council, along with the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral commitment to it.

According to an opinion poll conducted prior to the missile launch on 27 August by the Nihon Kezai Shimbun, 44 percent of respondents supported enhancing economic sanctions on North Korea, while 33 percent said the North Korean nuclear crisis should be resolved through diplomatic dialogue. Some 14 percent said military action should be considered.

We should definitely look into the next result because it will have an impact on Abe's constitutional change.

Since his return to office in 2012, Abe has been particularly keen on revising Article 9, under which Japan is known to have renounced war and the potential for war.

Most experts on the Japanese constitution consider that the Japanese Self-Defence Force (JSDF) represents a potential for war and is therefore unconstitutional.

In May 2017, Abe announced his view on the constitutional revision to address this legal issue. He said he would maintain the existing clauses of Article 9, but would add another clause that recognises JSDF as Japan’s constitutional national defence force. Doing so would resolve a highly legalistic debate over the constitutionality of JSDF.

In this respect, North Korea’s missile launch will provide Abe with political momentum to push through his revision plan on Article 9.

China and Russia have to do more

Toshihiro Nakayama, Professor of American Politics and Foreign Policy, Keio University; and 2017 Sir Howard Kippenberger Chair in Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington:

North Korea has upped its provocation. The sense in Japan is that this is not a time for a quick dialogue. This week’s event will result in an increased conversation in Japan about the nation's preparedness in case of an actual attack. Japan’s missile defence capability will surely be increased. Conversations about counter-strike capabilities have already begun.

The international community has to stick together to emphasise to North Korea that what it is doing is unacceptable. In this context, China and Russia have to do more.

North Korea may be signalling to the United States that they are only going to talk with the US when they are fully capable of launching an attack on the US.

There are no good solutions.

At some point, dialogue is definitely needed. Communication somehow has to be maintained. But this is not the right time.

Worst-case scenarios a long way away

Kevin Clements, Foundation Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies, and Ria Shibata, Research Fellow, National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago:

North Korea’s action was clearly provocative and aimed at demonstrating an ICBM capacity, and an ability to hit Guam in the US. It didn’t cross Trump’s red line, but the message was nevertheless still there. There’s no doubt in terms of the North Korean perspective that it was really a quid pro quo for the US-South Korean military exercise, which is continuing. 

It is important not to over-exaggerate the nuclear threat. If you look at missile capacity, North Korea’s ICBM range is 933km, compared with Russia’s 16,000km or the US’ 11,300km. While there's a danger, it is not a significant threat. North Korea does not have many of these missiles, they still haven’t mastered the guidance systems, and the nuclear warheads have not been miniaturised to fit on them.

Those worst-case scenarios are still a long way away.

Nevertheless, the Japanese are worried about the implications of the missile launch, and the stability of the region. To have it fly over Hokkaido was definitely crossing Japan’s red line. 

The key question is whether there are some negotiated solutions. Previous discussions about an arrangement where China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the US could look at a nuclear weapon-free zone should be reactivated, although that may be too late since North Korea is a nuclear power – they are not going to give up that weapon because it is their major bargaining chip.

But there are wider questions about flow-on from the sanctions policy – what do you want to see beyond sanctions and coercive diplomacy? North Korea clearly wants a number of different things: An end to military exercises, a permanent agreement replacing the armistice, and some guarantees the major military exercises won’t continue. They would want to see if it is possible for North and South Korea to reopen some of the bilateral conversations that took place under the Sunshine Policy (from 1998-2008).

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30 August 2017