North Korea’s provocative launch of an apparent midrange missile over Hokkaido on Tuesday is likely to give fuel to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to bolster the nation’s abilities to defend itself, while also throwing cold water on a return to dialogue, experts say.
The missile, which stoked concern in Tokyo after landing in the Pacific Ocean about 1,200 kilometers east of the northernmost prefecture, comes amid North Korea’s ramped-up pace of missile and weapons tests, including two nuclear detonations last year.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had also threatened Washington and Tokyo earlier this month with a plan to fire missiles into waters surrounding the U.S. territory of Guam. According to that plan, which Kim later backed off, the missiles would have flown over Shimane, Hiroshima and Kochi prefectures.
After the North’s two successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles in July — including one that experts say potentially puts Chicago and Los Angeles within range — U.S. President Donald Trump vowed the following month to rain down “fire and fury” on Pyongyang if it endangered the United States.
But the North’s latest launch, which analysts said was likely toned down after the Guam threat, may have been aimed at exposing the security dilemma the U.S. faces over its alliances with Japan and South Korea, with the technical information gleaned from the firing an added benefit.
“This missile event represents the Trump administration’s first real security test for the U.S.-Japan alliance,” said Michael Bosack, a former deputy chief of government relations for U.S. Forces Japan. “How the U.S. government responds now will send an important message to the Japanese government of what it might expect from the Trump White House when Japan perceives its security to be directly threatened.”
Bosack said Tokyo and Washington would almost assuredly be coordinating responses using the Alliance Coordination Mechanism, which was created to optimize joint planning and established following the publication of new defense guidelines in 2015, “so we should expect synchronized strategic messaging in the near-term.”
He said it was also possible that the government would allocate additional funds for the Self-Defense Forces for bilateral operations in response to Tuesday’s test-firing.
But the allies’ long-term response to the crisis has been the most vexing for them as the North makes strides in its ability to credibly threaten both Japan and the continental U.S.
Abe and others have advocated for a more robust approach to the issue, including bolstered missile defense and potentially even acquiring the capabilities to directly strike North Korean missile bases — an option Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera earlier this month said he would consider.
“Prime Minister Abe will likely see this as further justification for his efforts to enhance Japan’s ability to defend itself,” said Abraham Denmark, who served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia until January. “I expect accelerated discussions about missile defense, strike, and closer coordination with South Korea and the United States.”
As Abe grapples with the effects of a spate of scandals that have dented his support rate, he will also look to cash in on his personal ties with the current U.S. president, experts say. Abe has worked hard to cultivate one of the stronger relationships among foreign leaders with the mercurial Trump.
“Abe is trying to restore public faith in his leadership,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He will need to be steady in the face of the growing North Korean missile threat. Moreover, his personal investment in the relationship with President Trump will need to pay off.”
Smith said there are growing concerns over whether Abe can manage the increasingly unpredictable Trump, “and these escalating tensions between North Korea and the U.S. seem to be upping the risk for Japan.”
“This morning’s missile shot across Japan’s bow requires a strong alliance response if Abe is to demonstrate to the Japanese public that Washington is really ‘behind Japan 100 percent,’ ” Smith said.
Tuesday’s launch also came after the White House had earlier appeared to shift its focus from “fire and fury” to a return to dialogue, with the top U.S. diplomat last week lauding the North’s “restraint” for a temporary halt in provocations.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had on Sunday held out hope that the U.S., its allies and China could “bring the regime in Pyongyang to the negotiating table” — despite its firing a day earlier of three short-range missiles.
After the nearly monthlong lull in missile tests, Tillerson had said last week that he was “pleased” to see that the Kim regime had demonstrated a “level of restraint that we’ve not seen in the past.”
Ahead of Saturday’s launches, Trump himself had appeared sanguine about the prospect of improving relations with Pyongyang, telling a campaign rally last week that Kim “is starting to respect us.”
“And maybe, probably not, but maybe something positive can come about,” he said at the time.
But the fresh provocation Tuesday was likely to have closed the door to any talks in the near future — at least for now.
“I don’t see it as a slap in the face, but it does undermine claims by Trump and Tillerson that they got Kim to back down,” said Denmark, the former U.S. official. “North Korea remains committed to its nuclear and missile ambitions.”
Ultimately, experts agreed that the latest missile test was unlikely to be the last.
“Kim Jong Un continues to suggest he is uninterested in coming to the table,” said Smith. “My own conclusion is he won’t stop until he gets the ICBM; and he will try to weaken the alliances as he goes.”
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