Since July 25 alone, North Korea has test-fired three new short-range ballistic missile systems, indicating that it has been busy boosting its subregional capabilities since leader Kim Jong Un met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Korean demilitarized zone in June. Yet Trump has openly condoned the North Korean tests, largely because the new missiles threaten not the United States but Japan and South Korea.
Indeed, Trump has clearly indicated that his administration will put up with North Korea’s subregionally confined nuclear arsenal as long as Kim does not pursue long-range capability that threatens America. Not surprisingly, this American stance unnerves Japan, which is central to U.S. forward deployment in Asia but feels increasingly vulnerable to growing Chinese and North Korean missile capabilities.
The stance not only emboldens Kim but also gives him virtually a free hand in developing and testing short-range missiles that can potentially deliver nuclear warheads.
Trump has gone to the extent of making allowances for North Korea’s firing of such missiles by accepting Pyongyang’s explanation that the tests are linked to the ongoing joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea. Trump has called the two-week drills “ridiculous and expensive.” In fact, responding to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s concern, Trump has conveyed to him that he will continue to tolerate North Korea’s test-firing of short-range missiles so as to save the engagement process with Pyongyang.
It is not just Trump; others in his administration have also shrugged off North Korea’s short-range missile tests at a time when Washington is eager to revive stalled denuclearization talks with Pyongyang. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statements, for example, have highlighted U.S. willingness to put up with the test of any North Korean missile whose range is far short of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
After North Korea in early May conducted what was its first missile test in a year and a half, Pompeo said on ABC’s “This Week” show that, “At no point was there ever any international boundary crossed.” Referring to the agreement reached at the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June 2018, Pompeo candidly told “Fox News Sunday,” “The moratorium was focused, very focused, on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the United States, for sure.”
Japan has said that North Korea’s missile firings have violated U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang from developing and testing ballistic missile technologies. According to Trump, there “may be a United Nations violation” but that the “missiles tests are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was there [any] discussion of short-range missiles when we shook hands.”
This position, in effect, means that the Trump administration is ready to sacrifice the security interests of America’s regional allies as long as Kim does not test any capability that threatens American security.
In fact, just before Trump left for the Singapore summit, Abe visited the White House to urge that any agreement with Kim not compromise Japan’s security interests. But that is precisely what happened, with Kim agreeing not to test ICBMs but gaining leeway on shorter, Japan-reachable missiles.
Among the five weapons tests North Korea has conducted since July 25 is a new short-range ballistic missile known internationally as the KN-23. It seemingly resembles Russia’s nuclear-capable Iskander missile in its flight pattern and other traits.
Indeed, all three of the new missile systems test-fired by Pyongyang symbolize significant technological advances. They are all solid-fueled and road-mobile systems, making it easier to hide and launch them by surprise. By contrast, North Korea’s older, liquid-fueled missiles are detectable during the pre-launch fueling stage. At least one of the new missile systems can possibly be maneuvered during flight, making its interception more difficult for a missile defense system.
In this light, North Korea’s new missile systems represent a potent threat to America’s main allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea. But by shrugging off Pyongyang’s recent tests, including describing them as “smaller ones” that were neither ICBMs nor involved nuclear detonations, Trump has displayed remarkable insensitivity to Japanese and South Korean concerns.
Japan’s security nightmare has been that, as China continues to expand its already-formidable nuclear and conventional military capabilities, the U.S. will let North Korea retain the short- and medium-range portion of its nuclear arsenal. With self-interest driving U.S. policy, that nightmare appears to be coming true.
A North Korean subregionally confined nuclear capability will only deepen Japanese reliance on security arrangements with America. Japan has long remained ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But will the U.S. use nuclear weapons to defend Japan against an attack by China or North Korea?
For the U.S., its nuclear umbrella protection serves more as a potent symbol of American security commitment and as a nonproliferation tool to prevent Japan from considering its own nuclear weapons option. In a military contingency, the U.S. is more likely to employ conventional weapons to defend Japan, which pays Washington billions of dollars yearly for the basing of American troops on Japanese territory in the most generous host-nation support by any of America’s 27 allies.
The threat to Japan from North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability comes not only from a potential nuclear strike but also from nuclear blackmail and coercion.
The main lesson for Japan from Trump’s focus on addressing only U.S. security interests is to directly engage Pyongyang by leveraging its own economic power. To shore up its security, Tokyo could also consider mutual defense arrangements with other powers, including a nuclear-armed India.
Pacifism remains deeply embedded in Japanese society, in part because of the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. But the key issue at stake today is not whether Japan should remain pacifist (Japan is the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation) but whether it can afford to stay passive in a rapidly changing security environment. Peace in East Asia demands a proactive Japan.
Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.