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FOCUS: Restart of N. Korea missile testing may upset Japan’s strategy

  • November 30, 2017
  • , Kyodo News , 9:20 a.m.
  • English Press

Japan’s efforts to unite the international community behind its “pressure, not dialogue” stance on North Korea were set back Wednesday by Pyongyang’s launch of what it says is a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach any U.S. target.


The first launch in two months put on stark display Japan’s inability to prevent further provocative actions by North Korea through its strategy of appealing to influential countries to maximize pressure on Pyongyang.


With Washington now directly threatened, the fear in Tokyo is that it may turn to direct dialogue with Pyongyang and open the door to what a Japanese government source called “the worst-case scenario”: the United States’ effective recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power in exchange for a freeze in ICBM development.


By launching the Hwasong-15 missile on a steep angle, North Korea was able to demonstrate its potential range without having it land somewhere in the Pacific Ocean where the U.S. military would be compelled to try to shoot it down.


This choice was aimed at getting Washington to engage in dialogue, a diplomatic source in Beijing suggested.


A South Korean expert on North Korean affairs said leader Kim Jong Un could approach the United States to engage dialogue as a fellow nuclear armed state, possibly as soon as the New Year.


Faced with a fresh threat, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe merely repeated his usual maxim on North Korea in a parliamentary session in the hours after the launch.


“Our experience of the past 20 years shows that talking for the sake of talking doesn’t get results,” Abe said, seeking continued support for his administration’s stance.


The Japanese government’s plan has been to urge the international community to tighten the economic screws on North Korea until it agrees to give up its nuclear and missile ambitions, while working with the United States and fellow U.S. ally South Korea to ensure Japan’s security.


This emphasis on turning up the pressure explains Japan’s repeated calls for China, which accounts for about 90 percent of trade with North Korea, to exert its influence.


During the lull in action between Wednesday’s launch and the previous one on Sept. 15, optimism had spread within the Japanese government that stricter sanctions were having an effect.


Speaking in the Diet on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Taro Kono could not conceal his anger that North Korea “had been steadily preparing for the next (launch)” during that time.


The way U.S. President Donald Trump responds to the latest launch will determine what happens to Japan’s North Korea strategy from here on, a Japanese government official said.


Trump has refused to rule out military action against the North, something a source close to Abe’s office said would be far too high-risk for Japan to support.

In September, U.S. media quoted a retired general as saying the Defense Department has estimated 20,000 people could be killed daily in Seoul in the event of armed conflict.


But the alternative of dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang would also be hard for Tokyo to swallow.


Accepting North Korea as a nuclear power in exchange for an end to its ICBM development would still leave Japan threatened by the North’s intermediate-range ballistic missiles.


This is behind the Abe administration’s insistence that Pyongyang be required to show a clear will and take specific actions toward denuclearization before dialogue can begin.


Tokyo is wary that North Korea will at some point fire ICBMs across Japan into the Pacific Ocean, as it did with intermediate-range missiles over the northernmost island of Hokkaido in August and September.


Another Japanese government source said the government has recently been steeling itself for the possibility of a missile passing over Tokyo rather than northern Japan. While either trajectory would show off the missile’s range, the Tokyo option would send an extra strong message to Japan.


The diplomatic source in Beijing said the United States is unlikely to immediately respond to a call for dialogue in line with North Korea’s wishes, which would likely prompt the North to go a step further than it did Wednesday, to Japan’s detriment.


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after the latest launch that diplomatic options on North Korea “remain viable and open, for now.” But there are serious concerns about a decline in Washington’s diplomatic abilities in Asia.


Since Trump’s inauguration in January, the administration is still yet to name an assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the State Department.


For Japan, which would find it difficult to accept either military action or Washington-Pyongyang dialogue, the reality is that “there is no road other than the path of strengthening pressure,” the Japanese government official said.


“It’s not that we’re confident that pressure will have an effect,” a senior official at the Foreign Ministry said grimly.


“But if there’s even a bit of hope, we have no choice but to gamble on that.”

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