By Toshiyuki Ito, a professor at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology Toranomon Graduate School
The problem with the short-range ballistic missiles that North Korea has launched recently is not their performance but the fact that they are all new models. The missiles’ current level of performance does not pose a direct threat to Japan. Judging from their short flight distance, the missiles were developed to target South Korea. Also, the missiles are not capable of carrying a 1 ton nuclear warhead. This is why the U.S. has not strongly denounced the DPRK’s missile launches even though Washington demands that North Korea be denuclearized.
Missile experts, however, did not think that North Korea had developed a “quasi-Iskander” missile and so were surprised. The fact that the DPRK’s missile development technology is becoming more sophisticated indicates the country will likely be able to develop a new missile in the future that can reach Japan. The current level of Japan’s air defense posture may not be able to intercept such a missile.
It is highly unlikely that North Korea will wage war and fire missiles at Japan. It is an unfortunate fact, however, that the Sea of Japan is a test field for North Korea’s missile launches. When the range of the DPRK’s new missile is increased, the country will fire missiles toward the Sea of Japan or toward the Pacific Ocean by passing over Japan and they may land on Japanese territory by accident.
In this sense, Pyongyang’s missiles pose a threat to Tokyo, and Japan needs to strengthen its missile interceptor system to defend itself. The Defense Ministry apparently released information on North Korea’s new missiles to warn that the DPRK’s new missiles are indeed related to Japan’s security.
The government plans to deploy the ground-based missile interceptor system “Aegis Ashore” in Japan. Some experts criticize the deployment as meaningless because Aegis Ashore is incapable of intercepting North Korea’s new missiles. Such criticism is misguided. The U.S. is working on interceptor technology capable of shooting down these new missiles as well. When Japan introduces Aegis Ashore (slated for fiscal 2023), the system will have a more advanced interceptor capability than it does today.