A US Air Force F-15 Eagle assigned to Kadena Air Base, Japan on October 14, 2022. Image: US Air Force by Airman 1st Class Julia Lebens.
This year has proven to be an especially busy time for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his country’s defense industrial base. North Korea has launched more than 40 missiles of various types and ranges in 2022. Six of those tests occurred this month, including an October 12 launch of two cruise missiles that traveled more than 1,200 miles before landing in the East Sea (Sea of Japan). North Korea’s decision to resume intercontinental ballistic missile tests in March, which broke a nearly four-year unilateral moratorium of such activities, was not only the beginning of a more aggressive testing schedule, but was a direct repudiation of the benign atmosphere that has existed since 2018.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Kim is neither interested in nor eager to resume nuclear negotiations with the United States. As such, additional North Korean missile tests are assured. Kim’s January 2021 guidance to transform the country’s missile inventory into a lighter, faster and more lethal force, thereby enhancing its second-strike capabilities in the process, will proceed based on the North’s own schedule.
This poses a unique problem for Japan, a country that, over the last decade, has largely prioritized China over every other security issue, including North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The October 4 test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) over Japan’s northernmost islands, the first in five years, caused a mini-crisis for the young tenure of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and a stark reminder of how the North’s advancing capabilities. It brought the issue of North Korea back to the forefront of Japanese foreign and defense policy and is now driving efforts to increase Japan’s defenses.
Japan’s North Korea Policy: Lean on Washington
Successive Japanese governments have largely been content with outsourcing North Korea policy to their most important ally—the United States. Tokyo and Washington’s objectives pertaining to Pyongyang are virtually indistinguishable from one another. These include placing and upholding a permanent halt to nuclear and ballistic missile tests in accordance with various United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolutions, penalizing Pyongyang in the event of further violations and working toward the complete denuclearization of North Korea. On the missile issue specifically, Japan has arguably been tougher than the US, which remains most concerned with the North’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) rather than those with shorter-range capabilities. This distinction was particularly acute during the Trump administration when then-President Donald Trump threatened “fire and fury” in response to the North’s ICBM launches in 2017 but was willing to dismiss its short-range missile launches after the breakdown in diplomacy in 2019. This essentially normalized SRBM testing over time. Given its geographical location, Japan took a different view. For Tokyo, denuclearization, as monumental of an accomplishment as this would be, isn’t enough if the North keeps its arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles that can reach Japan. This type of scenario would remain a constant worry for Japanese defense planners.
Traditionally, Japan reacts to North Korean missile launches as predictably as the US does. National security meetings are quickly called to discuss the latest developments, a senior Japanese national security official (oftentimes the Japanese Prime Minister himself) issues a strongly worded denunciation of the action during a live press conference, and Tokyo urges the UN Security Council to increase the pressure on Pyongyang for its flagrant breach of international law. This is precisely what the Kishida administration did this month when Japan’s UN ambassador, Kimihiro Ishikane, excoriated the Security Council for its lack of urgency on the North Korea issue and advocated for stringent enforcement of the sanctions currently on the books.
Yet, those calls have fallen on deaf ears at the Security Council, where relations between the permanent members have frayed in large measure over the war in Ukraine. Russia and China, who frequently collaborated with the US, the United Kingdom and France on North Korea in the past, are now content with using the North’s continued WMD developments as a wedge issue to frustrate the US. For the first time on record, Russia and China both vetoed a US-drafted resolution in June that would have penalized Pyongyang for this year’s litany of ballistic missile tests. With Moscow and Beijing blocking any additional action at the multilateral level, Kim may feel reasonably comfortable to proceed with his military modernization campaign without much blowback from the international community.
Japan’s Slow Defense Buildup Could Accelerate
Even before the October 4 IRBM test, the mood within the Japanese government was one of gradual rearmament. In a June speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minister Kishida was unequivocal in his intentions: “I am determined to fundamentally reinforce Japan’s defence capabilities within the next five years and secure a substantial increase of Japan’s defence budget needed to effect such reinforcement.” Kishida’s remarks were virtually identical to those a month earlier, when he pledged to “fundamentally reinforce Japan’s defense capabilities” during his May 2022 summit with President Biden at the White House. Such sentiments aren’t relegated to Kishida or his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A May poll from Asahi Shimbun found that 64 percent of Japanese citizens believe Japan should strengthen its defenses, overshadowing the 10 percent who opposed it.
Support for boosting Japan’s defense spending and devoting a growing share of its public budget toward procurement of military hardware like the F-35, F-16, space-based systems, cyber warfare tools, and development of a new submarine class is a direct reflection of how Japan interprets the security environment in East Asia. The region’s security and stability are becoming more precarious in the eyes of the wider cross-section of Japan’s defense establishment, with China’s military modernization and North Korea’s ballistic missile advancements being the two greatest concerns.
Strengthening deterrence, bolstering the US-Japan security alliance and contributing to what the US refers to as a “free and open Indo-Pacific” are the three pillars that the Japanese Defense Ministry stands on. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that Kishida’s LDP is advocating for steep hikes to Japan’s defense budget, with the goal of bringing it in line with NATO standards. Kishida has apparently taken those recommendations to heart as Japan is considering spending nearly $280 billion USD on its military over the next five years, where much of this budget will be earmarked for anti-missile defense, cruise missiles, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Establishing fully equipped and resourced independent counterstrike capabilities, which would allow Japan to launch attacks against enemy bases and missile silos 900 miles away, will take special priority.
North Korea’s Actions Help Japan’s Defense Hawks
North Korea’s IRBM flight over northern Japan was not an unprecedented event. The first time the North lobbed a missile over Japan was in 1998, during President Bill Clinton’s second term in office, and several more tests like this were conducted in 2017. It also was not much of a direct threat to Japanese citizens on the ground since the IRBM (perhaps a modified version of the Hwasong-12) flew higher than the International Space Station.
Nevertheless, none of these specifics mattered for Japan’s defense hawks. North Korea’s testing activity is ammunition for those in and outside of the Japanese government who strongly believe more military spending is a baseline necessity. Kim Jong Un is, therefore, inadvertently accelerating an existing trend toward ever-increasing Japanese military expenditures. However, as to how quickly Tokyo can accomplish such a feat currently remains questionable.