TOKYO — As the threat from North Korea’s missiles grows, so the calls in Japan for a stronger military response are getting louder.
An influential group of politicians is publicly arguing for technically pacifist Japan to acquire the ability to strike North Korea instead of having to rely on the United States for its defense.
“Japan can’t just wait until it’s destroyed,” Hiroshi Imazu, the head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s security committee and a proponent of the idea, said in an interview. “It’s legally possible for Japan to strike an enemy base that’s launching a missile at us, but we don’t have the equipment or the capability.”
Gen Nakatani, defense minister until last year and a member of the committee, agrees. “I believe that we should consider having the capacity to strike,” he told The Washington Post.
Their public pronouncements have not come out by accident, analysts say. Such senior members of the powerful ruling party would not raise the issue unless it was being promoted at the highest levels.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly supports consideration of the idea. “I’d like to encourage the party to have this discussion and am keeping an eye on how it’s going,” he said in the Diet on Friday when asked whether he was in favor of acquiring the capability to strike.
Under the American-written constitution imposed in the wake of its World War II defeat, Japan may defend itself if it comes under attack but is not allowed to go on the offensive.
Imazu said that the current arrangement made Japan a “peculiar” country.
“Our country is protected by other countries, but we can’t do anything to protect them. This is not acceptable in the international community anymore,” Imazu said. “We cooperate with the U.S. and other nations to protect our country and also to contribute to peace in East Asia. In this environment, it’s only proper that we should discuss how we could protect our country.”
Abe has been trying to loosen the constitutional shackles on Japan’s military, notably with a 2015 law to allow Japan to come to the aid of the United States. He has signaled he would like to revise the constitution to allow Japan to have a normal military.
North Korea is now giving Abe plenty of ammunition to bolster his case.
It has been firing missiles at a steady clip into the Sea of Japan between the two countries, and three of the most recent salvo have landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The regime in Pyongyang said it was practicing to hit American military bases in Japan.
Japan is now upgrading its PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries to double their range, and is considering other defensive measures. At a forum in Washington last year, defense minister Tomomi Inada said that Japan was considering acquiring the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system recently deployed to South Korea — she even went to Guam to see it — and the Aegis Ashore, a land-based version of the SM-3 interceptors that Japan already has mounted on its Aegis destroyers.
With North Korea’s increasingly threatening tone and its clear progress in missile technology, talk of military action against Pyongyang is becoming more prevalent. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, said on a recent trip to Asia that “all options are on the table,” a stance that his South Korean counterpart appeared to support, despite the prospect of a conventional artillery attack on Seoul in retaliation for any strike against North Korea.
Appetite for action is growing in Tokyo, too.
“We know that North Korea’s missile capability has improved considerably,” said Itsunori Onodera, another former defense minister in the Abe administration and the chairman of an LDP committee on responding to the North Korean missile threat.
“Right now, we are discussing how we can make sure to prevent them,” he said, adding that the committee could make a proposal as soon as this week.
Onodera was particularly concerned by North Korea’s recent launch of missiles simultaneously, a move apparently designed to outsmart interception systems.
“In that case, we would come under attack one missile after another unless we strike the enemy base and stop them,” he said. “So the discussion is around the need to neutralize the missile launch base.”
Acquiring strike capability might be legally permissible under international law, but it will be difficult to sell to the Japanese public, the majority of whom have been resistant to the small changes Abe has made so far.
Analysts say that senior politicians could be floating a trial balloon to test public reaction to the idea.
“This discussion is not random,” said Brad Glosserman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum, saying the likes of Onodera would not raise such an idea without the prime minister’s encouragement. “The bottom line is that a strike capability gives Japan more control over its destiny.”
Discussion about acquiring a strike capability also arose during Abe’s first tenure as prime minister, in 2006-2007, a time that coincided with North Korea’s first nuclear test.
“Now, the threat is more crystallized. Some in Japan are saying, ‘We want to have our own fingers on the trigger, we want to be able to defend ourselves,’ ” Glosserman said.
But the Abe government has already taken one step that could take it halfway there — it decided to acquire 42 F-35 stealth fighter jets for air defense, which could be fitted with strike capability.
“The question is whether to use the F-35 to its full extent,” said Narushige Michishita, a North Korea expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. Another option is to buy Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States.
The U.S. Marine Corps already has 10 F-35Bs deployed at its air station in Iwakuni, in western Japan.
“Abe is politically astute and realistic in understanding what he can do,” Michishita said, describing how the prime minister is harnessing the momentum provided by North Korea’s threats. “F-35s might not be enough, but they’re a good place to start.”
Any change would not happen without extensive consultation with the Americans, said Nakatani, Inada’s predecessor as defense minister. “Japan doesn’t have the capacity to launch an attack on North Korea by ourselves,” he said. “In order for Japan to do that, it would take a lot of discussion with the U.S.”