After North Korea’s recent missile tests over Japan, new questions have been raised about the ‘pacifist clause’ of the Japanese Constitution and the effectiveness of Japan’s missile defense strategy. How could Shinzo Abe respond?
Just as it seemed like tensions in the Korean peninsula could not get any higher, North Korea decided to launch the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) over the Japanese island of Hokkaido. This was the fourteenth test of a ballistic missile conducted by North Korea in 2017 — leaving the country with nine operational ballistic missiles, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Of these nine missiles, only the No-Dong has Japan within its optimal firing range of between 1,200-1,500 kilometers. Given that Tokyo is a mere 1285 kilometers from Pyongyang, this is the missile that is likely to keep the Japanese Self-Defence Force on its toes.
Japan’s Self-Defense Legislation
At present, Japan’s missile defense strategy against North Korea is focussed on ensuring a successful interception of the No-Dong medium-range ballistic missile. In fact, it may be the only North Korean missile Japan’s Self-Defence Force can intercept under domestic law. The reason for this lies in the Japanese Constitution. Written in the aftermath of World War II, Article 9 stipulates that “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” In this sense, the Japanese Self-Defence Force is only allowed to defend against a foreign attack. This means that Japan can only intercept missiles that are due to land in its territory. Any other missile cannot be intercepted as it would constitute a “use of force as means of settling international disputes” that do not explicitly involve Japan. That is why Japan’s missile defenses are based upon interception of the No-Dong.
After understanding these legal constraints upon the Japanese Self-Defence Force, it becomes clear why North Korea’s latest missile test was so provocative. The Hwasong-12 has an optimal firing range of around 4,500 kilometers which means that North Korea will probably never fire the missile at Japan. It would be much more likely for North Korea to try and fire it over Japan en route to another destination. This is where the test of the Hwasong-12 comes in to play. By firing the missile over Japan, North Korea calculated that Japan’s elaborate missile defenses would sit idle and increase the chances of a successful test. According to the Yonhap News Agency, the Hwasong-12 flew 550 kilometers above Japanese territory which meant it navigated 450 kilometers above the upper threshold of Japan’s airspace. Japan could not legally intercept the missile and North Korea likely gleaned a lot of useful data. In short, the aforementioned missile test was a rational calculation from Pyongyang.
A Push for Japan to Reform Article 9
However, there was one calculation that Kim Jong-un missed. By manifesting the serious issues with Japan’s missile defense strategy, Kim Jong-un has provided Shinzo Abe with a grand political opportunity. Abe can now point to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution and say that its re-interpretation needs to be finalized well before the current deadline of 2020 on the grounds that it is needed to defend against the threat from North Korea. Should this argument sway the National Diet, Japan could have the legal backing needed to play an active role in defending against an array of North Korean missiles. Tuesday’s test is likely to help Abe convince the Diet about the merits of re-interpreting Article 9 sooner rather than later.
Abe now needs to think about how to garner public support for re-interpreting Article 9 and bolstering Japan’s missile defense systems. The former should be the riskiest for Abe as there has long been public opposition to the re-interpretation of Article 9. However the latter would entail risks of its own in a modern, pacifist Japan despite the fact its citizens have been made acutely aware of the threat that North Korea represents. Abe’s management of these domestic risks may well determine how Japan can contribute to the security of the United States in East Asia.
Abe’s Urgent Task
Japan’s alliance with the United States has helped the two militaries enhance interoperability. Nowhere is this interoperability more important than in missile defense. For example, should North Korea decide to launch an IRBM to Guam in the near future, the best chance at a successful intercept would come from a sea-based missile defense system. However, a successful sea-based intercept often has more to do with positioning than capability. Therefore, even if a Japanese Kongō-class destroyer was to be in a better position to intercept the North Korean IRBM than an American Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the Japanese could not lawfully attempt the intercept under Article 9. Hence the chances of intercepting a North Korean IRBM headed to Guam are reduced dramatically. This is how Article 9 poses a risk to America’s security in East Asia.
A lot depends on how Shinzo Abe handles the next few weeks. If Abe is to convince both the public and Diet that Japan must re-interpret Article 9 quickly, Japan will be in a much better position to defend itself and the United States against North Korea’s missile threats. If Abe cannot do this successfully, both Japan and the United States face greater risks from North Korea’s ballistic missiles.