North Korean tests scare Japan

TOKYO — Nothing exposes the toothlessness of Japanese foreign policy quite like a bit of saber rattling on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea's launch of seven ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on July 4 have certainly raised fears here. The Pyongyang regime's choice of the U.S. independence holiday for its biggest single-day barrage of missiles in three years shows the display of military might was a message intended for Washington.

Tensions in Japan have been high since North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test on May 25, weeks after it test-fired a long-range rocket that flew over the Japanese archipelago before splashing harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean.

The trajectory of that missile is justification enough, Tokyo says, for treating every test as a dress rehearsal for a bona fide strike, with all the cataclysmic consequences that would have for the word’s second biggest economy.

Those fears were brought into even sharper focus with the July 4 missiles as well as an earlier launch of four short-range missiles last week.

In the past, as now, Japan’s response has been confined to spirited, though largely ignored, condemnations.

In many ways, Tokyo's lack of diplomatic clout has been mirrored in the U.N. Security Council: The May nuclear test was, after all, a brazen violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution, agreed after the North’s first nuclear test in 2006, banning any activity related to its ballistic missile program.

It was only after the second nuclear test — a move that strained the North’s ties even with its allies in Beijing and Moscow — that the Security Council bared its teeth, calling on member states to enforce bans on all North Korean weapons exports and imports of all but the smallest arms.

Although the measures constitute a more muscular response than the presidential statement of concern that greeted North Korea’s ballistic missile test in early April, it remains to be seen whether they will be followed up in the face of increasingly unpredictable behavior by the

In the meantime, Japan’s options for bilateral action appear limited.

Other correspondents have used this site to discuss the likelihood of Japan developing an independent nuclear deterrent, a move that even with the biggest political will in the world seems unlikely for the foreseeable future.

For now, the talk is of beefing up Japan’s conventional capabilities in tandem with fresh efforts to squeeze the money supply from ethnic North Koreans in Japan to their homeland.

For its part, North Korea has threatened to shoot down Japanese planes accused of spying on missile launch pads and a similarly fearsome response if Japan joins inspections of vessels suspected of carrying banned weapons.

Since the North sent an intercontinental Taepodong-2 missile fizzing over Japan in 1998, Tokyo has spent billions of dollars on developing a missile shield with the U.S. and launched satellites capable of spying on the secretive regime.

While recently published defense guidelines call for a bigger, better equipped military, government officials insist Japan will not waver from its constitutional commitment to act only in self-defense.

The idea that the world’s only officially pacifist nation will develop a first-strike capability is pure hawkish fantasy, said the defense minister, Yasukazu Hamada.

“We have … made clear that we do not use force in order to resolve conflict situations and so whatever steps we take will be only for defense,” he said.

But other defense experts in his Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council disagree, proposing recently that Japan acquire the capability to strike enemy bases when threatened with imminent attack.

While Japan’s neighbors fret over this potentially momentous change in its defense stature, the influential Yomiuri newspaper has weighed in with support for the hawks.

A healthy Japan-U.S. security partnership, it said, must allow the former “to effectively exercise its right of collective self-defense, which is currently banned by the government’s interpretation of the constitution.”

On the face of it, Japan has every reason to explore measures beyond those hammered out in New York last month.

While its long-range capability remains technologically flawed, North Korea is believed to possess around 200 medium-range Rodong missiles capable of striking Japan. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, has done nothing to quell fears that Japan will be high on Pyongyang’s list of potential targets when, and if, his weapons experts succeed in miniaturizing nuclear warheads.

Yet despite the high stakes, Japan finds itself in the familiar role of bit-part player.

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. gave its ally no advance warning of North Korea's May 25 nuclear test. And while its nemesis across the Japan Sea seeks assurances for its survival well beyond the anticipated handover of power from the ailing Kim to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, those guarantees, if they ever materialize, will come from Washington, not Tokyo.

"If there is any point at which [North Korea] would be serious about stopping nuclear development, it will be when the U.S. fully recognizes it as a significant and meaningful nuclear power with a deterrent capability," said Hiroyasu Akutsu, a North Korean specialist at the National Institute for Defence Studies in Tokyo.

“Until then, North Korea will not stop developing nuclear weapons … in other words, until the U.S. and North Korea enter nuclear disarmament talks as equal nuclear powers.

“I think it’s unrealistic, but that’s their aim.”

All of Japan will be hoping that he is right about the first part.

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