North Korea’s notable progress in its nuclear and missile developments, underpinned by Friday’s fifth nuclear test, is becoming a real security threat to Japan, which hosts a bulk of U.S. military bases as Washington’s key ally in East Asia, analysts say.
Following Friday’s test, coming on the heels of more than 20 ballistic missiles launched by the reclusive state this year, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said the possibility of North Korea having miniaturized nuclear weapons through the last four nuclear tests cannot be denied.
“We cannot rule out the possibility that with the nuclear test this time, North Korea’s nuclear technology has reached a stage where it can aim for” operational use, a senior Defense Ministry official said.
Another senior ministry official also said, “The time of interval between the nuclear tests is shorter. North Korea may have attained a high level of technology.” The previous test was conducted on Jan. 6.
Under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, North Korea has been accelerating its nuclear and missile development.
In June, North Korea succeeded in launching a Musudan medium-range ballistic missile for the first time. In August and September, medium-range Rodong-type missiles landed in waters near Japan, while a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) was successfully fired in August.
Japan particularly sees the SLBM and Rodong missiles as threats to its security. Tokyo has been increasing efforts to strengthen defense cooperation with Washington, Seoul and other governments to rein in Pyongyang’s ambitions.
Many experts say that if North Korea possesses a nuclear warhead that can be mounted onto a ballistic missile, it would be for use on a type of Rodong, which is capable of hitting Japan.
“It can be judged that North Korea now has technology that can mount a nuclear warhead on a Rodong-type missile,” said Toshiyuki Ito, a former general in the Maritime Self-Defense Force.
Although North Korea is looking at the United States as its target for political negotiations, not Japan, Tokyo should nonetheless remain on guard, Ito said.
Some analysts said North Korea wants to show that it can hit locations where the U.S. military can operate, whether it be in South Korea or Japan.
On Aug. 3, in the first-ever such case, a North Korean Rodong missile flew some 1,000 km (600 miles), with its warhead landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan.
That was followed by three launches of Rodong-type ballistic missiles on Monday. They also landed in Japan’s EEZ, which extends 200 nautical miles (about 370 km) from Japanese shores. The incident showed that North Korea is improving its accuracy in operating the missiles.
One senior member of the Self-Defense Forces said that North Korea has “escalated its provocative actions greatly.”
“It is a different significance when a warhead, used for offensive purposes, falls within the EEZ as opposed to just a missile casing” lands there, the member said.
On Aug. 24, North Korea fired an SLBM that flew 500 km, reaching Japan’s air defense identification zone for the first time. Previously, such SLBM tests only flew a matter of a few dozen kilometers.
SLBMs are particularly worrying as their launches are relatively difficult to detect in advance. South Korean experts have said the SLBMs could be operational within the year.
“Imagine if a submarine comes to the middle of the Sea of Japan and launches a missile. The level of threat completely differs from that of a ground launch,” another senior SDF member said.
In anticipation of potential North Korean missile launches, Japan has issued an order for the SDF to shoot down any projectile heading toward Japanese territory.
But it remains uncertain whether Japan can effectively respond to an SLBM due to difficulties in detecting signs of a launch, analysts said.
To better cope with the North Korean threat, Japan hopes to conclude talks with South Korea for the early signing of an agreement that will allow the two countries to share military intelligence, defense ministry officials said.
It is also seeking to conduct more joint drills with the U.S. military to better detect submarines, they said.
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