Japan’s response to the North Korean satellite launch

By Masako Toki | April 3, 2009

Japan has responded to North Korea’s announcement that it intends to launch a communication satellite between April 4 and April 8, by mobilizing its missile defense system for the first time in the country’s history. Although North Korea maintains it will launch a Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite into orbit, the United States, Japan, and South Korea suspect the launch is a cover story for a Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile test.

On March 31, both houses of the Japanese parliament unanimously adopted a resolution calling for North Korea to cancel the planned launch. The resolution states that the launch would “damage peace and stability not only in Japan but also in northeast Asia” and “simply cannot be tolerated.”

Four days earlier, Prime Minister Taro Aso gave authorization at Japan’s Security Council meeting to mobilize the country’s missile defense to shoot down the rocket if it falls toward Japanese territory. Based on that decision, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada ordered Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to deploy its missile defense systems both on sea and land.

The order is derived from Article 82-2, paragraph 3 of the Self-Defense Forces Law, “Measures for Destruction of Ballistic Missiles,” which stipulates that when a ballistic missile or other object is suspected of flying toward Japan, an order may be issued to destroy it. This doesn’t require cabinet approval. It is the first time that the Japanese government has applied this law since Tokyo revised the Self-Defense Forces Law in 2005 to legalize the possible interceptions of ballistic missiles. (See “Japan Orders North Korean Rocket Destruction in Event of Launch Failure”.)

As a result, Tokyo sent the Kongo and Chokai destroyers–both equipped with the Aegis combat system and armed with Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors–to the Sea of Japan from Sasebo, Nagasaki prefecture on March 28. Kirishima, an Aegis ship not armed with SM-3 interceptors, was moved from the Yokosuka naval base to the Pacific Ocean where the missile is expected to land.

PAC-3 batteries (Patriot Advanced Capabilities) were moved from Hamamatsu, Shizuoka prefecture, and Gifu prefecture, in central Japan, to the northern part of the main island. The PAC-3 interceptors have been deployed throughout northern Japan, including the Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) Camp Iwate; the Iwatesan Training Ground; the GSDF Camp Akita; Araya Training Ground; and Air Self-Defense Forces (ASDF) Kamo Garrison. In the Tokyo Metropolitan area, three units were deployed from Iruma Air Base. The deployments in the metropolitan area include the GSDF Camp Asaka on the border of Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture; GSDF Narashino training ground; the ASDF’s Narashino Garrison in Chiba prefecture; and the ASDF’s Ichigaya base in Tokyo. (See “SDF to shoot down DPRK Missile If It Threatens Japan’s Territory”.)

The United States dispatched to the area two Aegis destroyers, the USS McCain and USS Chafee. In addition, South Korea dispatched the Aegis-equipped destroyer, Sejong the Great, from Seoul’s east coast to monitor the launch.

According to Pyongyang, the designated danger zones are off the coast of Akita in the Sea of Japan and in the northern Pacific Ocean between Japan and Hawaii, making the PAC-3 deployment in Tokyo just a precaution.

The Japanese government believes it’s highly unlikely that North Korea’s rocket actually will fall onto Japanese territory. Thus, it has encouraged the Japanese people to continue normal daily activities even during the hours North Korea has announced that it will conduct the launch.

As for the reliability of Japan’s missile defense capabilities, some governmental officials are skeptical. For instance, Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone admitted that intercepting a missile is difficult: “We don’t know how and where it would be flying over.” Another senior government official used the analogy of shooting a bullet with a pistol.

Tokyo’s decision to mobilize its missile defense system is largely to reduce public fears over the impending launch. The country’s current missile defense system is designed to shoot down medium-range missiles (that can travel around 1,000 kilometers) such as North Korea’s Nodong missile. Japan doesn’t yet have the capability to intercept a Taepodong missile, the range of which is more than 6,000 kilometers.

North Korea has stated that if its satellite is shot down, it will withdraw from the Six-Party Talks. Pyongyang also has threatened to wage war against Japan if Tokyo attempts to shoot down its satellite. Japan has made clear that any interception would be made only to protect itself from debris if the launch fails. While authorizing the use of the missile defense is unprecedented, the probability that Japan will need to attempt an interception is extremely low.

Therefore, Japan should work closely with the United States and South Korea to discourage Pyongyang from conducting the provocative launch. But since it’s almost certain that North Korea will conduct the launch anyway, Tokyo needs to start thinking about a response. As the utility of missile defense is limited in solving political disagreements, Japan should focus instead on the long-term goals of the Six-Party Talks. An overreaction won’t solve anything.

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