Interviewed by Soichiro Tahara, freelance journalist
Soichiro Tahara: This past January, Canada hosted a foreign ministers’ meeting to discuss North Korea’s nuclear development. What is your assessment of this gathering?
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera: Basically we all agreed on the need to continue our pressure campaign against the North. But since the meeting was joined by more than 20 countries, I honestly felt there was a difference of opinion in terms of a balance of “dialogue and pressure.”
Tahara: In particular, South Korea stressed the need for dialogue, as South Korea is facing a nuclear threat [from North Korea] more than any other country and it was directly involved in the Korean War.
Onodera: South Korea acknowledges the need to apply pressure. However, [when the foreign ministers’ meeting was held], the North-South dialogue was moving into a critical stage in the run-up to the PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea.
Tahara: Speaking about the North, I frankly have no idea about what Kim Jong Un is up to. North Korea agreed in the Six-Party talks to receive economic and food aid on the condition that it would give up its nuclear development. Nonetheless, North Korea secretly continued nuclear development. As a result, North Korea came under tougher economic sanctions and created a situation in which it might come under attack from the U.S.
Onodera: Before the Six-Party talks were held, North Korea scrapped the “1994 Agreed Framework” with the U.S., in which it agreed to freeze its nuclear development program. After all, North Korea is trying to buy time by embracing dialogue at one time and suddenly refusing to hold talks at another time, as they firmly believe that going nuclear is the best way to build deterrence. His grandfather Kim Il Sung and his father Kim Jong Il appeared to have used nuclear development as a diplomatic card, but I’d say the Kim Jong Un regime made clear its intention of possessing nuclear weapons.
Tahara: Do you think ramping up the pressure would change the North?
Onodera: This issue can be solved only if the North abandons nuclear development. North Korea initially closed the doors to South Korea’s call for participating in the PyeongChang Games, but it embraced dialogue and decided to send athletes. This is my speculation, but the change in their attitude is evidence that our pressure campaign is producing results. Of course, we cannot become so optimistic to expect that the North will accept our demands, but they might be wondering if it’s alright to push ahead with their hard-line approach.
Tahara: U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly mentioned that the U.S. is ready to take all possible steps, including the use of force. His aides, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, would probably oppose the use of force option, but what action do you think the U.S. will take after the Olympics?
Onodera: Washington says that “all options are on the table.” I don’t think this is a simple threat. Of course, there is a high hurdle for the U.S. to surmount before launching an actual attack. But the situation surrounding the U.S. is decisively different from when the Six-Party talks were held. The U.S. cannot rule out the possibility of its becoming the target of a nuclear missile attack by Pyongyang. Now that the U.S. homeland is exposed to the threat of a nuclear missile, it has no choice but to change its defense policy from before. We need to acknowledge this fact.
China implies change in its North Korea policy
Tahara: China, another key player on this topic, has recently changed its stance on North Korea. The most noticeable example is that China has built five refugee camps near the border with North Korea. It had long feared a huge influx of refugees after the collapse of North Korea, but now it looks like China is ready to accept them. This can be interpreted as China’s announcing that “we are not afraid of regime collapse.”
Onodera: In May last year, North Korea tested a ballistic missile on the opening day of China’s “One Belt, One Road” international conference. The incident must have upset China.
Tahara: In November, Kim Jong Un did not meet with a special envoy that Chinese President Xi Jinping sent. Japanese media outlets reported that Xi made a mistake in sending a low-profile envoy, but I don’t think so. The Chinese side must have predicted that Kim Jong Un would not meet even with a high-profile figure. If that happened, Xi would lose face. That’s why China did not send a high-profile figure.
Onodera: Kim Jong Un would meet with an envoy regardless of the person’s status if he wants to do so. But he did not meet with the Chinese envoy. This suggests that the North does not have a very good rapport with China either. When the United Nations adopted sanctions resolutions, China tried to water down their content by saying this and that, but it endorsed the resolutions in the end. North Korea probably asked itself, “Wasn’t China a friend?” Either way, that there are better ties between China and North Korea became an illusion.
Tahara: A senior Chinese official, whom I have a communication channel with, says “Xi Jinping opposes North Korea’s nuclear armament.”
Onodera: North Korea’s nuclear and missile development would only produce negative results for both China and Russia. North Korea’s ballistic missile development prompted the U.S. to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea. This sparks strong objections from China, but if the North had not developed nuclear weapons, the U.S. would not have deployed this missile system.
Similarly, Russia strongly opposes the deployment of the ground-based “Aegis Ashore” missile interceptor system, which we are currently discussing.
Tahara: The objective of this deployment is to enable Japan to shoot down North Korea’s missiles not only from Aegis ships at sea but also from the ground, isn’t it?
Onodera: That’s right. But the Russia minister of defense told me that “Russia is against the idea.” I asked the reason, and the minister answered: “The Aegis Ashore system deployed in Europe is operated by the U.S. This implies that the system to be deployed in Japan will be operated by the U.S. too. This may give the U.S. an opportunity to contain Russia.”
But that is not true. I explained to the minister that “the deployment is for Japan’s security, so there is no need to worry about.” I am also telling the Russia side that “Japan needs to step up its defenses against ballistic missiles to counter the North Korean threat. So we want Russia to work with us to eliminate such a threat and join us in applying pressure.”
Longer-range missiles becoming indispensable
Tahara: The government decided to mount long-range cruise missiles on Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets, but some media outlets criticized this decision, claiming that the possession of weapons that enable an attack on an enemy’s base runs counter to Japan’s defense-oriented policy. What do you think about this?
Onodera: That criticism does not make sense at all. These long-range cruise missiles are called standoff missiles, which can be fired from outside the effective range of the enemy’s air defense system or the detective range of radars. These will be deployed to deal with amphibious and seaborne troops invading our country. In fact, the deployment of these missiles is of great significance.
Today, many countries possess longer-range missiles, and their radar detection capabilities are also improving. Under such circumstances, what would happen if Japan has only short-range missiles? Suppose there is a target at sea that we must pound in order to defend Japan but Japan has only short-range missiles, Self-Defense Forces aircraft will have to risk approaching the target.
Tahara: That means SDF pilots know they might be shot down but will close in on the enemy.
Onodera: Exactly. If an SDF plane is detected by the enemy’s radar and locked on, that is the end. Our planes might be shot down by the enemy’s long-range missiles. We have to have longer-range missiles if the enemy has such missiles. Otherwise, SDF personnel will not be able to carry out their missions safely. I personally think that the government’s decision to deploy standoff missiles was rather late.
Some people say standoff missiles will make it possible [for the SDF] to strike an enemy base, but that’s a misunderstanding. The possession of longer-range missiles does not mean that we can attack the enemy as we like. We need to know various things, such as the exact location of the target facility and the situation around it, for example. On top of missiles, we also need equipment. Otherwise, we won’t be able to pinpoint the target for destruction. I wonder why they suddenly begin to talk about something like striking an enemy base.
Tahara: Do you mean that the government, or at least you, has no intention of mounting an attack on an enemy’s base?
Onodera: Prime Minister Abe has mentioned this on multiple occasions. Japan plays the role of a shield while the U.S. acts as a halberd. This basic role-sharing between Japan and the U.S. remains unchanged. Japan’s responsibility is to block the enemy’s attack.
Tahara: We have learned that North Korea is preparing to launch missiles targeted at Japan. Nonetheless Japan will not strike it, will it?
Onodera: At present, Japan has no such ability to do so. It is the U.S., our ally, that can do so.
Tahara: Would it be possible for Japan to equip itself with capabilities to pinpoint and attack the target?
Onodera: At this point, we have no plan to do so. Let me add one thing. We can attack the enemy’s base if that action is deemed necessary to defend our country to the minimum extent necessary. The government’s interpretation is that this does not violate the Constitution. The Constitution does not deny the right to self-defense so we are allowed to take appropriate countermeasures, not just sit and take no action. But the government has never taken specific actions along the lines of that interpretation. And Japan is not in the situation that requires it to take specific measures. I would like you to understand this point correctly.
Is it possible to protect Japan against the North without security laws?
Tahara: Yet some media outlets and opposition parties claim that the exercise of collective self-defense constitutes a violation of the Constitution.
Onodera: But they also argue that the government should take a “resolute response” to the threat from North Korea. The key component of that “response” is missile defense.
Tahara: North Korea is pushing ahead with its missile development.
Onodera: That is right. But Japan has only five Aegis-equipped ships capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. The five ships alone are not sufficient to defend Japan. Meanwhile, the U.S. military deploys seven Aegis vessels to Yokosuka. If Japan and the U.S. team up, our interception capability will be improved dramatically. This would be indispensable if we really think we’ve got to protect Japan from North Korea’s threat. But before the security legislation came into force, the two countries could not be ready for collaboration sufficiently. We could not even conduct joint training.
Tahara: They could not even collaborate though the U.S. forces were there.
Onodera: If and when Japan and the U.S. are pitted against the enemy, and in case a U.S. vessel comes under attack, then Japan’s SDF ships would have to protect that U.S. vessel. But in the past Japan was not allowed to take action unless Japan comes under attack.
Another easy-to-understand example is the scenario that involves bringing home Japanese nationals in South Korea in the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula. Of course we will seek the support of the South Korean government in dispatching SDF ships, but time may become an issue.
Tahara: We don’t know if South Korea will give a green light swiftly, do we?
Onodera: The most realistic option for their rescue is to ask the U.S. to carry Japanese nationals on its transport ships nearby. But the problem is what if the ship carrying Japanese nationals was attacked by North Korea at the open sea. Previously the SDF could not launch a counterattack even though many Japanese and Americans trying to rescue Japanese people might be involved in the attack. This was because Japan is not under attack and the ship belongs to the U.S.
Tahara: But the security laws finally allowed Japan to protect U.S. ships.
Onodera: That’s right. Because the security laws are put in place, we are able to deal with North Korea’s threat in multiple ways for the first time. But there are people who object to the security laws but demand Japan be protected. There is no consistency in their arguments.
Tahara: Why are they so strongly opposed to collective self-defense?
Onodera: There is a misunderstanding. As I’ve already explained by citing the examples, the security laws are the minimum requirements for us to protect the country from specific threats. I don’t go into the details, but we will exercise collective self-defense not fully but in a limited range when needed.
Tahara: In that respect, some Liberal Democratic Party members, such as Shigeru Ishiba, say that the Abe government is lukewarm about handling the collective self-defense issue. Those politicians want the government to fully exercise collective self-defense. What’s your take on this?
Onodera: I personally believe that Japan should continue to uphold a defense-only policy. But there are situations in that Japan alone cannot defend itself. So we need to make changes in that respect. We discussed these as the base. Our prerequisite is to “protect Japan.” If our policy is based on it, we don’t need a system that allows Japan to exercise collective self-defense to the fullest extent. If we need to discuss this, we may have to consider revising the Constitution. The incumbent cabinet ministers assess situations based on the existing Constitution, and they acknowledge they are not in a position to take part in discussions on [whether to allow Japan to fully exercise collective self-defense].
Politicians should be coolheaded
Tahara: I am one of the last people who know what the war was like. But to be honest, I don’t trust the Japanese people very much. For example, when the Manchuria Incident occurred, the press as well as the Japanese public all voiced out their support even though the freedom of speech was not oppressed. Even today, anti-Chinese and anti-South Korean sentiment win a strong following. I’m fearful about this mood.
Onodera: Public opinion is important, but it’s sometimes rocked. But politicians must remain calm. I always keep this in mind.
Tahara: Many people around Prime Minister Abe view China as a threat. What’s your stance?
Onodera: We describe China as a “concern.” Defense authorities cannot overlook China’s military buildup in a murky fashion. China has recently sent a submarine to the contiguous zone along the Senkaku Islands. We need to keep a close eye on these actions and deal with them. At the same time we need to build a mechanism of dialogue to prevent a trivial incident from developing into an unpredictable situation. We make sure these two measures are in place.
Tahara: Do you have a communication network with the Chinese side?
Onodera: To be specific, Japan and China are in the final stage of negotiations on the establishment of an air and maritime liaison mechanism, or a hotline, between the SDF and the Chinese military. Since the SDF and the Chinese military both operate aircraft and vessels, we cannot deny that an accident could happen. If that is the case, we have to avoid a situation in that the other party take it as an attack and mount a counterattack. To that end, Japan and China agreed on the need to have such a hotline.
Tahara: You said the negotiations are underway for agreement. This means that the Chinese government also acknowledges the need to build such a mechanism.
Onodera: This also applies to North Korea, but if a conflict broke out, both sides would suffer. Before World War II, there might have been economic rationality that land and natural resources that one country seized by winning war could offset the amount of money it spent on the war and the number of lives lost. But that is not true any longer. In today’s world, countries are economically intertwined with each other. The termination of such a relationship would cause greater damage than simply seizing an oil well, for example.
Tahara: Leaders across the world should acknowledge this.
Onodera: Deep inside, they all know about this. My U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary James Matttis, mentioned the exactly same thing.
Tahara: Are you on the same wavelength with him?
Onodera: Yes I am. The other day, Secretary Mattis said that “the role of defense authorities is to stand behind foreign policy and contribute to a peaceful settlement of international issues.” I agree with him. Even though foreign affairs authorities take a hardline approach, they might be taken advantage of [by the other side] if we, defense authorities, do not have a firm resolve. Diplomatic messages we send out can become influential only if we can build up our defense capabilities. Secretary Mattis and I share this basic idea.
Tahara: I see. You mean that mounting an attack should not become the first option of defense, and the military’s role is to back diplomacy.
Onodera: In this respect, Secretary Mattis and I share the same stance.
Tahara: Given the Trump administration, I think your ties with Secretary Mattis is very important. Let me say ‘hang in there.’