After North Korea test-fired seven missiles July 5, arguments suddenly began flying within the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that Japan should consider developing the capability to strike a foreign missile base if there is an imminent threat of an attack on Japan.

The missiles fired by Pyongyang included a Taepodong-2 missile, capable of reaching Alaska; Rodong missiles, which can reach Japan; and Scud-C missiles with a range of several hundred kilometers. The arguments for a preemptive capability, which appear to have quieted temporarily, greatly deviate from the nation’s “defense only” policy and the principles of the war-renouncing Constitution. Moreover, such arguments can cause suspicions among neighboring countries and instability in this region.

The Constitution-based “defense only” policy embraces the following principles: Japan will maintain only the minimum necessary defense capability, will hit back only after it has been attacked, will not become a military threat to other nations, will not use military force abroad, and will let the United States take the offense when attacked. The policy emphasizes that Japan, when attacked, will cope with the emergency passively and will not carry its “defense” into a foreign country.

Under the policy, Japan has refrained from developing or possessing weapons that could strike foreign countries, including long-range bombers, missiles and attack aircraft carriers.

North Korea’s missile launches have caused fear and anger among Japanese and calls to condemn that country. But an emotional reaction can hamper rational judgment. In this situation, it is all the more important to avoid a reflexive response and remember that the “defense only” policy has helped Japan build trust in the international community and has contributed to overall stability in this region.

Recent arguments over whether to acquire a preemptive capability were prompted by Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga’s remark: “As a sovereign nation, it is natural to consider possessing the minimum capability (for a preemptive strike against a foreign missile base) within the confines of the Constitution in order to protect the citizens.”

Foreign Minister Taro Aso expressed a similar idea. Chief Cabinet Secretary General Shinzo Abe said it is always necessary to “study the issue.” And LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe seconded Mr. Abe’s view.

Mr. Nukaga and other officials are not saying that the nation should immediately begin moving toward a preemptive strike capability, per se. They are saying that Japan should consider how to deal with a particular situation — such as when a foreign country is poised to attack Japan with a missile and there is no other way to prevent the missile attack. Apart from the danger that their arguments threaten to undermine the nation’s basic defense posture, it is politically thoughtless of them to air such arguments. They have failed to consider how neighboring countries may react and the possible long-term effects of their comments.

A Japanese move to attain preemptive strike capability, even if limited, would only tempt a country like North Korea to further upgrade its military capabilities, leading to yet another round of countermeasures by Japan or other countries. The end result of such an arms race spiral would be increased instability in this part of the world.

The arguments for a preemptive strike capability have already caused adverse reaction overseas. South Korean presidential spokesman Jung Tae Ho said, “It is nothing other than a grave situation when Japanese Cabinet ministers repeatedly raise the possibility of launching preemptive strikes and try to justify armed actions on the Korean Peninsula.” He added that Japan “has revealed its natural inclination to invade, and (South Korea) can only caution (against that).”

A North Korean broadcast said Japanese officials’ arguments represent “Japanese ambitions to re-invade (the Korean Peninsula).” These reactions are largely misplaced, but it appears that the hawkish arguments in Japan have caused perturbations in the region.

The arguments by Mr. Nukaga, Mr. Abe and others could send the wrong signal that Japan wants to become a military power. They also may lead part of the public to believe that Japan must possess a preemptive strike capability. If such a sentiment were to prevail, it would become difficult for the government to pursue rational options.

What is most important now is to persevere in trying to bring North Korea back to the stalled six-nation talks. Indulgence in shortsighted, military-oriented schemes and argumentation does not contribute to peace and stability in East Asia.

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