By Sugimoto Koji and Ichioka Toyohiro
North Korea has repeatedly launched hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles this year, and Japan and the U.S. have taken steps to strengthen deterrence. On Jan. 23, the U.S. Navy announced a drill involving two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) vessels, and on Jan. 15, it announced the port call of a nuclear submarine to the U.S. territory of Guam.
These moves are seen as part of “coercive diplomacy,” which aims to pressure North Korea to exercise restraint. The U.S., however, has refrained from conducting the kind of saber-rattling around the Korean Peninsula seen before the 2018 U.S.-North Korea summit.
The two U.S. aircraft carriers and the MSDF helicopter destroyer “Hyuga” conducted a drill on Jan. 17-22. A total of 10 vessels from the U.S. Navy participated in the joint tactical exercise.
During a press conference on Jan. 25, MSDF Chief of Staff Adm. Yamamura Hiroshi stressed that the drill “contributed to strengthening deterrence and response capabilities of the Japan-U.S. alliance.”
Japan and the U.S. have confirmed a three-pronged policy of (1) calling for dialogue with North Korea without preconditions; (2) implementing sanctions against the DPRK based on U.N. Security Council resolutions; and (3) strengthening deterrence.
However, North Korea has not responded to the call for dialogue and has launched a total of eight missiles on five occasions, including the launch of a cruise missile on Jan. 25. A senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “We are now in a situation where we must strengthen deterrence.”
On Jan. 15, the U.S. Navy announced that the Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine “Nevada” had made a port call to the U.S. territory of Guam. Japanese and American sources familiar with defense affairs said, “It is highly unusual for the movement of a nuclear submarine to be made public. It’s a message to North Korea.”
The drills between the two U.S. aircraft carriers and the MSDF ships were conducted in waters off the southern coast of Okinawa Prefecture, far from the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. nuclear submarine’s port of call was Guam, which also is far from the Korean Peninsula.
When North Korea conducted several ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests in 2017, U.S. aircraft carriers and bombers were deployed around the Korean Peninsula as part of efforts to intensify pressure.
Since the first U.S.-North Korea summit between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018, however, the U.S. military has refrained from making any significant moves around the Korean Peninsula.
During a politburo meeting of the Workers Party of Korea on Jan. 19, Kim indicated that he may resume nuclear testing and the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).
The Japanese and U.S. governments are expected to increase pressure while monitoring North Korea’s moves. A senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “If North Korea launches an ICBM, American bombers and aircraft carriers will probably be brought near the Korean Peninsula.”