Kyodo News
Back to Main
FOCUS: N. Korea's missile launch over Japan could become new normal

North Korea's launch of a ballistic missile over Japanese
territory Tuesday may become the new standard for the North's shows
of force, according to defense and diplomacy experts in Japan and
abroad.

The apparent lack of an attempt by either Japan or the United
States to shoot down the missile will likely embolden Pyongyang to
carry out further tests in the same vein, they say.

As North Korea gets ever closer to its ambition of developing
nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, and if the United
States softens its stance to defuse the crisis, Japan may find itself
diplomatically isolated in its stiff resistance to opening up direct
dialogue with the North.

The missile's launch early Tuesday startled residents under its
flight path on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, who were
likely expecting North Korea to instead follow through on its threat
earlier this month to fire missiles over western Japan toward the
U.S. territory of Guam in the western Pacific.

But Lee Jong Won, a professor at Waseda University's Graduate
School of Asia-Pacific Studies in Tokyo, said the move fits in with
Pyongyang's aim to show off its missile-development progress while
avoiding alienating the United States enough to close the door to
future talks.

"North Korea seems to have chosen this path so that it still has
more cards up its sleeve, like a longer-range test further into the
Pacific Ocean or another test of a nuclear weapon," he said.

"Firing missiles over Japan will become commonplace, as North
Korea has now got the message that missiles launched over Japanese
territory will not be intercepted," Lee said.

The trajectory of Tuesday's missile, suspected by experts to be
a "Hwasong-12" intermediate-range type, departed from previous steep
"lofted" trajectories that let missiles land short of Japanese
territory at sea. This allowed North Korea to test the weapon in the
sort of conditions it might face on a launch toward Guam or Hawaii.

Japanese government sources said Tuesday they are now fearful
the latest progress will see a risk-averse U.S. administration relax
its stance on North Korea and agree to reopen dialogue without the
condition that the North abandons its nuclear program.

Tokyo is firmly against direct dialogue, fearing it would
internationally legitimize North Korea as a nuclear-armed state --
something a government source called the "worst possible scenario."

After a teleconference with U.S. President Donald Trump on
Tuesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he and the president were "in
complete agreement" on North Korea. A Japanese spokesman said the
leaders agreed that now is no time for dialogue with the North.

But earlier this month, Trump on Twitter praised North Korean
leader Kim Jong Un's apparent postponement of the Guam plan as "a
very wise and well reasoned decision," leading one Japanese
diplomatic source to suspect the president "may have received some
sort of message from Kim's side."

And a Japanese government source described getting a feeling
before Tuesday's launch that secret backroom negotiations may already
be under way between Washington and Pyongyang.

Abe repeated Tuesday his support of the U.S. stance that all
options -- including military action -- are "on the table."

A Japanese Foreign Ministry source said it indicates Abe's
concern about the possibility of the United States starting
negotiations directly with North Korea. South Korean President Moon
Jae In has advocated talks as part of a thaw with the North.

North Korea is now too close to developing nuclear-tipped ICBMs
for the United States to realistically consider military action,
according to Ankit Panda, a New York-based expert on international
relations, international security and geopolitics.

"I think the window for preemption has effectively closed -- at
least, preemption with an acceptable level of risk that North Korea
would be able to retaliate with nuclear weapons," Panda said.

Waseda's Lee said North Korea likely wants to keep the prospect
of direct dialogue at arm's length until it has fully polished its
bargaining chip -- nuclear ICBMs that could reach the U.S. mainland.
That could be up to a year from now, he said. (Aug. 29)