Japan’s options limited after missile sirens jolt it from sleep

North Korea’s missile scared residents – but did nothing to change the region’s arithmetic

Sirens blaring over city rooftops would be alarming to most people. In a country where elderly people can still recall the American aerial bombings that obliterated most Japanese cities at the end of the second World War, it is particularly traumatic.

Across northern Japan on Tuesday morning, millions of residents awoke to mobile phone alerts and announcements from public loudspeakers that North Korea had lobbed a missile over the region. Television broke with normal programming to broadcast the alert.

The satellite-based J-Alert system has been used for a decade to warn of impending earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. Over the summer it has been retooled to deal with the menace of Pyongyang’s increasingly frequent missile tests.

Yet the system, which reputedly cost 100 billion yen (€764 million), only underlines Japan’s impotence. The alerts came shortly after the launch of what the authorities said was an intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missile, giving less than five minutes to flee to “solid buildings or basements”.


By the time most people had rubbed the sleep from their eyes, the missile, launched just before 6am, had broken up and dropped into the sea off Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, leaving breathless television commentators to explain what had happened.


J-Alert could be a metaphor for the government’s entire response to its belligerent neighbour. Japan has several layers of missile defence, including land and sea-based systems that have failed to deter the North, let alone take out any of its inbound missiles.

A few weeks ago, Pyongyang even published a flight plan showing the planned trajectory of four missiles that would fly over southern Japan en route to the US Pacific territory of Guam. One of the cities under the flight path was Hiroshima, destroyed by an American nuclear bomb in 1945. It seemed a calculated provocation.

Japan’s ministry of defence warned this month that the threat from the North’s nuclear weapons programme had entered “a new stage”. Its annual report said it was possible that the North has already successfully miniaturised nuclear weapons and “acquired nuclear warheads”.

Partly in response, the ministry has requested another record-breaking military budget. Among the items on its shopping list is the Aegis Ashore, an American land-based anti-missile system that is supposed to augment the ship-based Aegis SM-3, and PAC-3 Patriot missiles on land.

Children in rural Japanese schools are now trained to run for cover and busy city train lines have been stopped during mass civilian evacuation drills. Throughout Tuesday, public television broadcast the sort of rolling coverage normally reserved for natural disasters. Trains were even briefly stopped in Tokyo, more than 700km from the missile's path.

Prime minister Shinzo Abe struggled to find new language to condemn the latest launch. "North Korea's reckless action is an unprecedented, serious and a grave threat to our nation," he said on Tuesday morning. Abe said US president Donald Trump told him he stood square behind Japan.

US consent

That's part of the problem, says Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at the Australian National University. Japan's best option, he says, would be the resumption of bilateral or multilateral talks with the North, which were abandoned years ago, "but it cannot do it without US consent".

Washington and its South Korean ally have for years staged biannual military drills that include a simulated nuclear strike. The latest drills, which began a week ago, are seen as a rehearsal for invasion by Pyongyang, which often responds with provocative military stunts.

In the absence of an end to the drills and a permanent peace treaty with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, the North will continue to use military threats until it gets security guarantees while it rebuilds its economy. Most experts believe it is only a matter of time before it tests its sixth nuclear weapon.

In the meantime, Japan’s options are limited. It will demand further sanctions when the 15-member UN Security Council meets again on Tuesday. But the council unanimously slapped new sanctions on the North after the launch of two missiles last month, to no effect.

Abe is also likely to use the latest launch to argue for the need to rewrite Japan’s pacifist constitution. Some Japanese politicians are pushing for pre-emptive military capabilities such as cruise missiles that could destroy North Korean missiles before they launch.

All this brinkmanship, and Trump’s threat to rain “fire and fury” down on the North, could simply be a stacking of the negotiating chips, and the prelude to the long-awaited talks. Nobody wants to start a war, says Petrov. “But a human error or technological mistake can bring the situation out of control.”