North Korea’s firing of what appeared to be an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan Tuesday morning — which landed in the sea 1,180 km east of Cape Erimo in Hokkaido after reaching an altitude of 550 km as it flew over the nation’s northernmost prefecture — serves as a stark reminder that our country is well within the range of North Korean missiles. Though it’s not the first time that a North Korean ballistic missile flew over Japan — in fact the Tuesday’s was the fifth since a Taepodong-1 flew over Tohoku and landed in the Pacific in 1998 — such a provocative act is unacceptable and must be denounced. However, sheer denunciation and condemnation will likely not stop Kim Jong Un’s regime, as we all know from the failure of international efforts so far to discourage Pyongyang end its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
In a telephone conversation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly concurred that it’s no time for a dialogue with North Korea and that greater pressure must be applied on Pyongyang. Calling the latest missile launch an “unprecedented, serious and grave security threat” that could “undermine peace and security in the region,” Abe said North Korea’s “policy must be changed by adding a stronger pressure” on the regime. It must be noted, however, that pressures alone have not been able to end North Korea’s provocative acts. Efforts must be maintained to pursue a diplomatic solution, particularly involving China and Russia.
The prime minister also said the government fully grasped the movement of the missile since right after its launch and that it took all measures to protect the lives of people. For the third time ever, the government activated its satellite-based J-Alert system to inform municipalities in 12 prefectures, including Hokkaido, of the missile launch and its flight over Japan, calling on residents to evacuate to safe places. The initial alert was issued about four minutes after the missile was fired at 5:58 a.m., urging the residents to take precautions. Twelve minutes later, the system informed that the missile appeared to have flown past the areas.
The sequence shows how little time there will be for residents to respond if a missile is fired at Japan. There will be limits to the efforts to prevent damage in case a missile hits the country. The government said it did not issue an order to intercept Tuesday’s missile because it was clear from radar information that it was not going to strike Japan. But there’s no guarantee that the missile defense system will be fail-proof. Efforts must be pursued to stop North Korea from firing missiles.
Tuesday’s ballistic missile launch was the 13th so far this year by North Korea, which included two launches in July of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States’ mainland. Tensions flared up between North Korea and the U.S. in early August after Kim’s regime said it would consider launching intermediate-range missiles in the sea off the U.S. territory of Guam. Kim later backed off on that threat, however, and top U.S. officials appeared to tame their rhetoric toward North Korea, making it look like both Pyongyang and Washington were exploring the chances for talks to resolve the crisis.
The weeks-long hiatus in North Korea’s missile launches was broken last Saturday when Pyongyang fired three short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan — just as the U.S. and South Korean forces were engaged in the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian war games, a largely computer-simulated joint exercise, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for invading North Korea. Tuesday’s missile was the first to fly over Japan without a prior announcement by North Korea, which had claimed its four previous such launches were those of rockets to put artificial satellites into orbit. It is a highly dangerous and provocative act. The missile is believed to have been the intermediate-range Hwasong-12, which Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said has the range to reach Guam. Foreign Minister Taro Kono meanwhile said Pyongyang “appeared to have held back” by not firing the missile toward Guam in apparent fear of U.S. retaliation.
North Korea may be trying to ratchet up tensions over its missile and nuclear weapons programs in order to draw the U.S. into talks under terms favorable to the regime. If that is the case, North Korea should maneuver for dialogue through diplomatic means, instead of repeated missile and nuclear provocations. But such actions should still not preclude efforts to resolve the standoff through diplomatic dialogue as a military solution would be far too costly.