The North Korean threat remains

The assurances of U.S. President Donald Trump notwithstanding, North Korea continues to threaten Japan. Still, tensions have been reduced and Japan should use the opportunity to see if momentum can be sustained and confidence-building reinforced. Thus, the decision by the Japanese government to lower Self-Defense Forces alert levels makes sense. That does not mean that North Korea is no longer a threat, however. Vigilance, along with appropriate defense planning and preparation, remains essential.

Trump’s penchant for hyperbole and his indifference to detail (and often facts themselves) is sufficiently well established that his claim upon returning from the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea” was roundly dismissed. Skepticism was deserved: The Singapore joint statement was striking in its lack of detail and Pyongyang has not made any gestures that indicate a change in its thinking about nuclear weapons.

There is no missing, however, the change in the atmosphere. It is not much, but it is more than has occurred in some time. It would be a mistake to not try to explore and build upon this moment. Tokyo has attempted to do just that, reaching out to Pyongyang — with little success, it seems — to commence a dialogue.

Consistent with this threat environment, the government has approved a decision to lower the alert level of SDF Aegis-equipped destroyers from high-alert to 24-hour notice to be ready to intercept North Korean missiles. Japan has had, since August 2016, two Aegis-equipped destroyers — armed with interceptor missiles — on high alert in the Sea of Japan ready to destroy any incoming missiles. In August 2017, land-based units with PAC3 surface-to-air missiles were deployed at Ground Self-Defense Force camps in Hokkaido, Chugoku and Shikoku areas. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has also reportedly lowered its alert level.

This decision makes sense. As Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga earlier explained, Japan is clearly not in a situation in which North Korea’s missiles may fly toward the country at any time. A constant level of high alert drains SDF resources, encourages complacency and signals that Japan is indifferent to whatever changes might be occurring in the security environment. Given continuing levels of surveillance and intelligence gathering of North Korean facilities, a 24-hour warning should be sufficient to get missile defense capabilities online in time.

Japan will continue with plans to purchase and deploy additional missile defense units. The government decided in December to purchase the system for two Aegis ashore batteries that it plans to have in place by 2023 and are exploring candidate sites for their deployment. The plan will give Japan one of the most robust missile defense systems in the world, and its $2 billion price tag will mollify Trump, who sees U.S. defense equipment sales as one way of reducing his country’s trade deficit with Japan.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera explains that “the threat posed by North Korea has not changed,” adding that “We are advancing plans for Aegis Ashore out of the thought that it will contribute to the defense of Japan.” Note Onodera’s general assertion of defending Japan. He is not just referring to the Aegis Ashore’s ability to intercept cruise missiles with conventional warheads. He is obliquely referring to the hundreds of missiles that China has that also threaten Japan. While China could overwhelm even new layered systems, missile defense deployments introduce uncertainty into military planning, forcing adversaries to reassess assumptions about how to prosecute a conflict. In blunt terms, such systems make it harder to intimidate Japan and force adversaries to look squarely at the prospect of war instead.

Military actions constitute just one part of Japan’s response to new nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. Just as important is the contribution it can make to denuclearization efforts once they commence. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has noted that the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident has given Japan “expert knowledge” that could help in the decommissioning of North Korean nuclear facilities, but Pyongyang is unlikely to accept it given its ill will toward Japan and the military sensitivities surrounding that project. More likely is that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which will oversee decommissioning, will use Japanese money to support those efforts. The ¥350 million that Tokyo has contributed to the IAEA for inspections won’t be enough.

Even inspections are a long way off. While U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insists that there is progress in denuclearization talks, there is little evidence of this. Recent intelligence reports indicate that the North may already be delaying, cheating or hiding nuclear facilities. While every effort must be made to encourage North Korea to make the strategic choice to give up its nuclear weapons, blind faith and naivete will not defend this country. Incentives and vigilance are required.