TOKYO – Japan knows just what to do if North Korea goes ahead with a thinly disguised test of a new ballistic missile next month: shoot the @#$! thing down.
Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka told Diet members Monday that “We will take the (necessary) procedures in the event of a contingency that threatens our country’s security,” and pointed out that Japan has Patriot PAC-3 and Aegis destroyers that could do the job. Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Forces began deploying Patriot batteries to Japan’s southern islands today.
The Japanese are still traumatized by a 1998 test in which nuclear-armed North Korea lobbed a ballistic missile directly over the home islands. The incident prompted the Japanese to join the US in missile-defense R&D, and it remains a cornerstone of Japanese defense policy.
North Korea said Friday it will attempt to put an Earth observation satellite into orbit sometime in April. But that’s seen as a cover for a testing a long-range ballistic missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, of course. Technically, the launch would violate UN Security Council Resolution 1874. Tokyo could claim it was enforcing the mandate, although it does not authorize use of force.
North Korea said the missile will be fired in southerly a location, which means Tokyo-ites won’t see contrails flying overhead. Nevertheless, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said he couldn’t rule out the possibility that the missile would pass over Okinawa or other southern islands.
Whether the Japanese could actually take out the missile would depend on whether an Aegis destroyer or Patriot battery were in the right place. The Patriot missile travels has a published range of about 70 kilometers.
If Japan does try to take out the missile, it would be its first shot fired in anger since World War II. That’s one reason it’s unlikely to happen. In addition to annoying the North Koreans, it could also make the Chinese and South Koreans — ever suspicious of Japan — nervous.
Japan has conducted tests of the Patriot and Aegis systems, but has never fired at a real ballistic missile. That’s another reason the Japanese are unlikely to make good on the threat, says Ralph Cossa, president of Honolulu-based Pacific Forum CSIS: “It would be embarrassing if they missed.”