Following North Korea’s third nuclear test last week, Japanese officials have expressed concern about the reclusive state’s possible progress toward fitting a miniaturized nuclear warhead atop a medium-range missile.
Pyongyang has already successfully test-fired and deployed the Rodong-1 ballistic missile, which has a range of 1,300 km.
A senior Foreign Ministry official said that if the North manages to equip the Rodong-1 with a nuclear warhead, it would pose a “significant threat” to the whole of Japan and necessitate a strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance, as well as enhanced nuclear deterrence measures by Washington.
In response to the atomic test last Tuesday, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told the Diet that the government can’t rule out the possibility that North Korea may one day succeed in developing the technology to miniaturize a nuclear warhead.
The government fears North Korea has made progress already, in part because more than six years have passed since its first atomic test in October 2006. The North detonated a second nuclear device underground in May 2009.
The three tests so far could have allowed the North to improve its nuclear technology to a “fair degree,” a high-ranking Defense Ministry official warned.
A government source said Japan also can’t ignore Pyongyang’s claim that the latest test was conducted with a “smaller and light atomic bomb, unlike the two previous ones, yet with great explosive power.”
As a result, the government is being urged to expand the antimissile defense system. A Defense Ministry source said the government could consider acquiring new weapons to strike enemy targets, including in North Korea.
The Rodong-1 is a single-stage medium-range ballistic missile developed by North Korea. It was first deployed around 1997.
The missile is capable of reaching Japan within 10 minutes of takeoff, and some experts say it is difficult to ascertain the locations of the North’s missiles before launch because they are moved around on mobile launcher.
Abductee talks in limbo
The government’s bid to settle the North Korea abduction issue has suffered a further setback now that Pyongyang’s latest nuclear provocation has made a resumption of bilateral talks in the near future unlikely.
Experts predict a bumpier, longer road in resolving the long-running dispute over the abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and ’80s, with more U.N. Security Council sanctions expected against North Korea following its detonation last Tuesday of an atomic device.
“We should think about what to do about bilateral talks, which remain suspended, after thoroughly taking into account the circumstances, including the latest nuclear test,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has instructed his administration to employ every effective means possible to resolve “outstanding issues” with Pyongyang toward normalizing bilateral ties, and the abduction matter tops the list. North Korea claims the issue has already been fully resolved.
Following Tuesday’s test, the government imposed additional unilateral sanctions against the North, tightening immigration controls for senior officials of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), which serves as Pyongyang’s de facto government mission in Japan.
Dialogue resumed last year after a four-year hiatus, with high-level Japanese and North Korean officials meeting in Mongolia in mid-November.
The government had hoped to use the renewed negotiations to make progress on the abduction issue, but it postponed the following round of talks scheduled for last December after Pyongyang announced it would launch a long-range rocket to put a satellite into space.
The North’s successful launch in mid-December, in violation of Security Council sanctions, was widely viewed as a covert ballistic missile test and led to a suspension of the bilateral talks.
Given the government’s need to take a tough stance on the North’s third nuclear test, the abductees issue is certain to remain stalled for the foreseeable future.