The U.S. government’s stance of keeping all options, including military action, “on the table” to deal with North Korea is testing the nerves of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration.
North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test Wednesday prompted questions about what Tokyo intends to do if the U.S. opts for military action.
President Donald Trump repeated that all options remain on the table in a telephone conversation with Abe on Thursday morning.
Abe called that a “strong statement,” and a Japanese official later said the prime minister told Trump he “strongly appreciates” the way the United States is conveying its message.
But concerns about U.S. openness to military action are quietly spreading in both the prime minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry, according to sources close to the matter.
“If this turns into an armed conflict, Japan could become part of the theater of combat,” a Japanese government source warned.
The worst case scenario may be the prospect of North Korea falling into a self-destructive state and launching ballistic missiles directly at targets on the Japanese archipelago.
The task of working with the United States to draw up an effective plan to deal with Pyongyang — one with Japan’s peace and security at its core — may test the Abe administration’s diplomacy.
Several diplomatic sources said senior Japanese officials went to Washington in early February ahead of Abe’s summit with Trump that month to discuss their views on the military option with their counterparts in the U.S. State Department.
The officials mentioned Tokyo’s unease over the prospect of being within the theater of a potential conflict, the sources said.
When North Korea fired four missiles that landed relatively close to Japan, Abe told Trump in a telephone call on March 7 that it is “important for Japan and the United States to confer with each other and share strategic objectives,” according to a senior Japanese official.
“It would be an absolute disaster if the United States took the step of a military operation without contacting Japan in advance,” a senior member of the Abe administration said.
Despite being allies, Tokyo and Washington have different primary concerns, which would reflect on the courses of action they advocate.
For Japan, which lies within the range of missiles North Korea has previously deployed, the goal is to defuse political tensions while avoiding hostilities.
But for the United States, the emphasis is on overwhelming the North before the isolated country has a chance to develop missiles that could reach the U.S. mainland.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has signaled the country is doing just that. He claimed in a New Year’s Day address that the North has reached the final stage of preparations to test an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States.
According to a Japanese government source involved in diplomacy with the United States, the possibility of a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula cannot be ruled out.
“If there were ballistic missiles capable of reaching between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland, the United States would not stay quiet,” the source said.
If the debate on the potential use of U.S. military force on the peninsula heats up among the Japanese public, the Abe administration’s cooperation with Washington is sure to come under scrutiny, complicating Tokyo’s options.
For now, the Japanese government is apparently striving to maintain a poker face over the issue.
“The Trump administration is merely saying military action is one of the range of options,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters on Wednesday.
“We want that to be accepted calmly,” the official said.
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