Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, Water, Peace, and War.
North Korea has test-fired a slew of short-range ballistic missiles in recent weeks, including three new systems, indicating that it has been busy boosting its sub-regional capabilities since its leader Kim Jong-un met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Korean demilitarized zone in June. Yet Mr. Trump has openly condoned the North Korean tests, largely because the new missiles threaten not the United States but Japan and South Korea.
Indeed, Mr. Trump has clearly indicated that his administration will put up with North Korea’s sub-regionally confined nuclear arsenal (as Washington has done with Pakistan’s) as long as Mr. Kim does not pursue long-range capability that threatens the United States. Not surprisingly, this American stand unnerves Japan, which is central to U.S. military deployments in Asia but feels increasingly vulnerable to growing Chinese and North Korean missile capabilities.
Mr. Trump’s position not only emboldens Mr. Kim but also gives him virtually a free hand in developing and testing short-range missiles that can potentially deliver nuclear warheads.
Mr. Trump has gone to the extent of making allowances for North Korea’s firing of such missiles by accepting Pyongyang’s explanation that the tests are in reaction to the continuing joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. Mr. Trump has called the two-week exercises “ridiculous and expensive.”
Others in Mr. Trump’s administration have also shrugged off North Korea’s short-range missile tests. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statements, for example, have highlighted a U.S. willingness to put up with the test of any North Korean missile whose range is far short of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
After North Korea in early May conducted what was its first missile test in a year and a half, Mr. Pompeo said on ABC’s This Week that “at no point was there ever any international boundary crossed." Referring to the agreement reached at the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June, 2018, Mr. Pompeo candidly told Fox News Sunday, “The moratorium was focused, very focused, on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the United States, for sure.”
Japan has said that North Korea’s missile firings have violated United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang from developing and testing ballistic missile technologies. According to Mr. Trump, there “may be a United Nations violation,” but the missile "tests are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was there [any] discussion of short-range missiles when we shook hands.”
This position, in effect, means that the Trump administration is ready to sacrifice the security interests of the United States’ regional allies as long as Mr. Kim does not test any capability that threatens American security.
All three of the new missile systems test-fired by Pyongyang symbolize significant technological advances. They are all solid-fuelled and road-mobile systems, making it easier to hide and launch them by surprise. By contrast, North Korea’s older, liquid-fuelled missiles are detectable during the pre-launch fuelling stage. At least one of the new missile systems can possibly be manoeuvred during flight, making its interception more difficult for a missile-defence system.
Japan’s security nightmare has been that, as China continues to expand its already-formidable nuclear and conventional military capabilities, the United States will let North Korea retain the short- and medium-range portion of its nuclear arsenal. With self-interest driving U.S. policy, that nightmare appears to be coming true.
A North Korean sub-regionally confined nuclear capability will only deepen Japanese reliance on security arrangements with the United States. Japan, like Canada, has long remained ensconced under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But given the Trump administration’s “America First” approach and its constant refrain that U.S. allies must do more for the alliance, will the United States use nuclear weapons to defend Japan against an attack by China or North Korea?
For the U.S., its nuclear-umbrella protection serves more as a potent symbol of American security commitment and as a nonproliferation tool to prevent Japan and other allies from considering their own nuclear weapons. In a military contingency, the United States is more likely to employ conventional weapons to defend Japan, which pays Washington billions of dollars yearly for the basing of American troops on Japanese territory in the most generous host-nation support by any of America’s 27 allies.
However, the threat to Japan from North Korea’s nuclear-weapons capability comes not only from a potential nuclear strike but also from nuclear blackmail and coercion. Pyongyang could employ the tacit threat of use of nuclear weapons to coerce Tokyo to make economic or political concessions.
The main lesson for Japan from Mr. Trump’s focus on addressing only U.S. security interests is to directly engage Pyongyang by leveraging its own economic power to build better relations with North Korea. And to shore up its security, Tokyo could also consider mutual-defence arrangements with other powers.
Pacifism remains deeply embedded in Japanese society, in part because of the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. But the key issue at stake today is not whether Japan should remain pacifist, (Japan is the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation) but whether it can afford to stay passive in a rapidly changing security environment. And with the United States stepping back, peace in East Asia demands a proactive Japan.
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