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North Korean tests scare Japan

US is key to countering Pyongyang's potential nuclear threat to Japan.

North Koreans in a mass rally against the United States. Although North Korea's tests of its missiles and its nuclear capabilities threaten Japan, the U.S. is the power that North Korea wants to engage with over the issue. This photo was taken on the 59th anniversary of the start of the Korean War (1950-53) on June 25, 2009. The banner reads, "Crush the nuclear war provocation and maneuvers by the U.S.!" (KCNA/Reuters)

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.