Monday’s inflammatory remarks by Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe in the wake of North Korea’s missile tests have touched off a controversy over Japan’s interpretation of “pre-emptive attacks.”

South Korea criticized Japan for floating the idea, saying it revealed Japan’s “expansionist nature” as a former colonial power.

“We can’t help but intensely watch it, as Japan exposed the nature of its aggressive policy,” Yonghap News Agency quoted spokesman Jung Tae Ho as saying at the South Korean president’s office.

But government officials in Tokyo argued Tuesday that — under their own technical interpretation of the concept — Cabinet ministers were not advocating pre-emptive attacks but discussing whether there was a legal framework under the pacifist Constitution to strike an oversea ballistic missile base before a missile perceived as targeting Japan is actually fired.

Asked what he thought of Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga’s comment Sunday that it is natural to consider possessing the capability to perform such a mission, Abe only said Japan should “deepen discussion” on the issue under the terms of the Constitution.

Abe did not use the word “pre-emptive” at the news conference, but he discussed theoretical views on the idea that had been expressed in past Diet sessions.

According to the government’s interpretation of the Constitution, Japan is allowed to use military force for self-defense only when attacked. Pre-emptive attacks are not allowed.

However, if a country is seen setting up and fueling a ballistic missile for launch and it has a clear intention of attacking Japan, the government could theoretically recognize it as an attack that has already started, according to an official view conveyed to the Lower House in 2003 by then Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba.

In that scenario, Japan could claim its “right to self-defense” and strike the base before the missile is actually fired.

Defense officials said Abe mentioned this only as a theoretical possibility.

The government has three criteria for invoking the right to strike a foreign missile base: An attack must be imminent, there are no other means of defense, and use of force should be limited to the minimum needed.

Japan has other means of defending itself and direct attacks are unlikely, the Defense Agency officials said.

Under the Japanese-U.S. security alliance, Japan is allowed to have only defensive weapons but can ask the U.S. to use long-range weapons for overseas strikes in emergencies, the Defense Agency said.

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