Japan is “deeply concerned” over North Korea’s progress in developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, calling the advances emblematic of the “new level of threat” posed by the reclusive state, the Defense Ministry said in its annual white paper unveiled Tuesday.
The report also concluded in more definite terms than last year that Pyongyang has made “significant headway” in its nuclear arms development, citing its “possible” ability to develop miniaturized nuclear warheads that can fit on the tips of its missiles.
The paper also ratcheted up Japan’s condemnation of China’s continued maritime muscle-flexing, expressing “strong concerns” over its activities in both the East and South China seas.
In the waters, China “continues to display what may be described as a heavy-handed attitude, including its attempts to alter the status quo by force,” an approach that risks potentially explosive contingencies, the paper said, adding that Beijing’s military spending had tripled over the past decade.
Newly appointed Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera on Tuesday pointed to China’s “unabated menacing activity” in justifying the stepped-up rhetoric.
“China’s activity in the South China Sea is a threat not only to Japan but to the international community,” Onodera said. “We recognize its calls for the preservation of maritime freedom that is based on the law are of great importance, and the Defense Ministry will continue to cooperate closely with the international community in dealing with this problem.”
The annual report technically covers events that occurred through the end of June, but the significance of what the North claimed was the successful test-firing of an ICBM on July 4 left the ministry scrambling to add an additional assessment of the regime’s ever-increasing military threat.
Tokyo says the July 4 missile likely flew on a steep “lofted” trajectory, reaching a height of at least 2,500 kilometers and an estimated flying ability on a normal trajectory of at least 5,500 km.
This, coupled with Pyongyang’s claim that it had successfully tested the atmospheric re-entry of a warhead loaded on the missile, has led Tokyo to conclude that the regime is “seeking to put long-range ballistic missiles into practical use,” the white paper said.
The ministry also voiced concern over signs that the North is working toward making its launches more unpredictable and harder to track, with an apparent goal of improving its surprise-attack capabilities.
This tendency, the report said, has been evident in the way Pyongyang has repeatedly conducted test launches using a Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL), a vehicle that allows for the easy relocation — and quick firing — of its missiles.
Should the North succeed in developing miniaturized nuclear warheads able to fit on the tips of its missiles, it could lead the regime to become “overly confident” in its ability to deter the U.S., its archenemy, the report said. This, it said, would be a “seriously worrying” scenario that could prompt Pyongyang to carry out increasingly risky military provocations.
On the Japan-U.S. relationship, the paper emphasized for the first time that hosting American military bases in Japan is beneficial not only to the country but also to the U.S. itself.
The unprecedented mention of American military bases appeared to be directed at U.S. President Donald Trump, who during the election campaign harshly criticized Japan for not paying enough for the security umbrella it provides.
The release of the white paper was postponed by a week to replace an introductory note by former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who resigned last month amid outcry over the ministry’s cover-up of politically sensitive Self-Defense Forces activity logs.
Onodera said in the new note that he will strive to turn the ministry into a more “disciplined” organization in a bid to restore public trust.