North Korea: The View From Japan

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Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Tokyo's newspapers report Kim Jong Il's passing

TOKYO – Troops are not on high alert. Cities are not being evacuated. Leaders are not sprinting for fortified bunkers.

As odd and erratic as the North Koreans might be, they are not about to inaugurate new leadership by raining nuclear destruction on their Asian-Pacific neighbors – and they probably couldn’t do so even if they wanted.

While North Korea has enough fuel for six or eight small nuclear weapons, it doesn’t have the technology to put them on missiles. Nor are its missiles particularly accurate beyond a short range.

“A lot of this is just hysterics based on a worst-case scenario, magnified by a factor of 10, with no look at actual military capability,” says Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, in Honolulu. “The North Koreans are not suicidal. They know that if they try to use their nukes, it’s all over.”

By treaty, the U.S. is required to defend South Korea or Japan from outside attack. With 20,000 Americans living in Seoul and 100,000 in Tokyo, the Obama Administration could come under considerable pressure to respond in kind to a North Korean nuclear attack on its neighbors.

Monday’s tearful announcement from Pyongyang that “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il was dead and third-son Kim Jong Un had taken over drew immediate attention in Japan. Japanese newspapers rushed out special editions and TV went to special programming. Much of it focused on North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons capabilities, and Japan’s lack of a military deterrent.

The Diet has authorized a costly missile-defense system that includes land- and ship-based interceptors and satellite detection systems. But constitutional restrictions do not allow Japan to own nuclear weapons or other weapons with overtly offensive capabilities. That means Japan has no cruise missiles or warplanes with ground-attack capabilities that could preemptively destroy North Korean nuclear sites.

The United States has more than enough ships, planes and weaponry based in the region to get the job done, of course, if necessary.

The Japanese have been edgy ever since North Korea sailed a long-range missile over the main islands in 1998 and began conducting nuclear weapons tests in 2006.

The government response on Monday provided reassurance to a nervous public, but seemed to recognize the lack of an imminent threat.

After Pyongyang’s announcement, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda canceled an outdoor speech, held a 10-minute meeting with defense advisers and placed Japanese reconnaissance planes on alert. He also issued a three-sentence directive to government ministries; it concluded with the helpful advice that ministers should be “fully prepared for unpredictable circumstances.”