Japan upgrades its threat level over North Korea

Pyongyang may already be able to miniaturise nuclear weapons, says official paper

An intercontinental ballistic missile being launched at an undisclosed location in North Korea on July 28th. Photograph:  Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

An intercontinental ballistic missile being launched at an undisclosed location in North Korea on July 28th. Photograph: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP


Japan has upgraded its official warning on North Korea, saying that the threat had entered a “new stage” and that the regime may have already acquired the ability to miniaturise nuclear weapons.

Japan’s annual defence white paper – a hefty document that also highlights China’s “attempts at changing the status quo by coercion” – said that the threat posed by Pyongyang had been reassessed after two nuclear tests and more than 20 test-firings of ballistic missiles since last year’s report.

“It is possible that North Korea has already achieved the miniaturisation of nuclear weapons and has acquired nuclear warheads,” said the white paper.

In its overview of Japan’s defence priorities, the white paper described the security environment as increasingly severe, with “destabilising factors becoming more tangible and acute”.

The report highlighted the test launch carried out by North Korea on July 4th, concluding that this was a ballistic missile with intercontinental range.

The North Korea warning comes less than a week after prime minister Shinzo Abe reinstalled Itsunori Onodera as defence minister – a political veteran who has stated publicly that Japan should consider acquiring the technology to strike overseas missile bases.

Although it would take many years to develop the technology, such a move would mark a radical shift in Japan’s pacifist defence posture. Mr Abe has focused his political career on eventually amending article 9 of Japan’s constitution – the “peace clause” that renounces the threat or use of force to settle international disputes.

Back burner

Facing depressed approval ratings, Mr Abe appears to have put constitutional revision on the back burner. More immediately, he said at the weekend that Tokyo had “no plan” to give Japan’s self-defence forces permission to begin the development process that would allow them to strike a North Korean missile base.

But some analysts judge that Mr Abe, or a future successor, might not encounter heavy resistance to changes aimed at reducing the threat of North Korea. The procession of missile tests, any one of which would be capable of hitting Japan, has prompted many Japanese municipalities to run evacuation drills – alarming exercises that may harden the public view that Japan should equip itself with more offensive capabilities.

Mr Onodera, in his first press conference on returning to the role of defence minister, said that he had been instructed by Mr Abe to review the national defence programme guidelines. “I would like to study, with ceaseless effort, a review of the guideline from the perspective of what must be done to protect the lives and peace of the Japanese public,” said Mr Onodera.

“Compared to the last time I was defence minister [three years ago], the improvement of North Korea’s ballistic missile ability is amazing,” he added.

The 2017 white paper added to last year’s already substantial warnings on China, noting that Beijing “remains poised to fulfil its unilateral demands without compromise”, and the risks this posed to the regional security environment.

For the first time, the white paper made specific mention of China’s activities in the Sea of Japan – flights by military aircraft and the fact that the number of scrambles by Japan’s air self-defence forces had increased to a record high in the 12 months to March 2017.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017