Given enough time, North Korea will likely succeed in developing a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a ballistic missile capable of directly striking Japan, the Self-Defense Forces’ highest-ranking officer warned Tuesday.

Facing reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano declined to comment on whether Tokyo believes the North has already acquired such a capability, but said that given more time, Pyongyang would likely master this technology, putting Japan in grave danger.

“So it is very important for the international community to keep putting pressure on the North to renounce its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs,” Kawano said.

Kawano’s visit to the FCCJ came after Pyongyang’s latest test-firing of a ballistic missile Sunday — a move that came despite mounting pressure from China and the United States to halt its provocative actions.

The SDF chief also noted that the North has already developed ballistic missiles that can strike most of the Japanese archipelago.

“So the question is whether a nuclear warhead has been made small enough to be mounted (on a ballistic missile) or not. I can’t say anything clearly about this yet,” Kawano said. “However, we should not be optimistic” about the pace of development.

Last year, Pyongyang test-fired more than 20 ballistic missiles and conducted an unprecedented two nuclear tests.

This year, it has continued its frenetic pace of missile launches, further accelerating its weapons program.

Japan has a two-layer missile-defense system consisting of Aegis destroyers equipped with SM-3 missiles and ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) systems.

But if the North fires a simultaneous barrage of ballistic missiles, “it would be very difficult” for Japan to intercept all of them, Kawano said.

For that reason, Tokyo now plans to introduce an upgraded version of the SM-3 missile and is building more Aegis destroyers to bolter its missile-defense capabilities, Kawano said.

Asked about the territorial dispute with China over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Kawano said the SDF remains determined to defend Japanese territory but “is calmly dealing with” Chinese coast guard ships that repeatedly approach the islets. The islands are known in China as the Diaoyus.

“We’d like to calmly react so that we will never cause an escalation” of the situation, Kawano said.

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