As tensions rise, Japan moves to update Korean crisis response

Kyodo, AP, Reuters

The government has been working on plans to respond to a potential crisis on the Korean Peninsula since February in light of heightened tensions stemming from Washington’s response to North Korea’s nuclear provocations, government sources said.

Discussions in the National Security Council have so far included a plan to evacuate Japanese from South Korea and measures to address the risk of North Korean soldiers infiltrating Japan disguised as refugees, the sources said Thursday.

The government has also warned Japanese schools in South Korea to keep abreast of developments amid the climbing tensions, the education minister said Friday.

The e-mail notice, dated Thursday, instructs school administrators to gather information on the North Korea situation from Japanese diplomatic offices and local authorities to keep students safe, education minister Hirokazu Matsuno told a Diet committee.

There are two schools that cater to Japanese in South Korea. They have close to 500 students and staff, the education ministry said.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump continues to assert that all options, including military action, will be considered to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs — a departure from the “strategic patience” doctrine of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

On Friday, as a U.S. aircraft carrier group headed to the region while the North geared up to conduct a suspected sixth nuclear test, North Korea’s vice foreign minister blamed Trump for escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula through his tweets and through the expansion of military exercises, saying the U.S. was becoming “more vicious and more aggressive” than it had been under Obama.

Vice Minister Han Song Ryol also warned the U.S. against provoking North Korea militarily. “We will go to war if they choose,” he said.

Tensions have risen since the U.S. Navy fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield last week in response to a deadly sarin attack, raising concerns about Trump’s plans for North Korea, which has conducted missile and nuclear tests in defiance of U.N. and unilateral sanctions.

Tokyo now sees the urgency of updating its emergency response policy, originally drawn up in 1996 alongside a revision to the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines.

At the same time, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is appealing to all parties involved in the North Korea situation, promoting a doctrine of “dialogue and pressure” — i.e., urging China to use its influence on the reclusive state.

According to the sources, Abe called an NSC ministerial meeting on Feb. 23 after his summit with Trump in the United States earlier that month.

Abe instructed Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita and others to come up with crisis plans, having judged that increased U.S. pressure on North Korea could raise the possibility of unrest, the sources said.

The attendees at that meeting concluded that a crisis on the peninsula could lead to an influx of refugees along the Sea of Japan coast.

The government will prepare a humanitarian response and bolster security measures, the sources said.

To evacuate the 60,000 Japanese estimated to be in South Korea at any given time, discussions have focused on requesting help from the U.S. military in South Korea or dispatching Self-Defense Forces aircraft or ships to pick up evacuees with Seoul’s approval.

The ministerial meeting brought together Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada.