Japan effectively decides to acquire military capability to strike enemy bases

Posted on : 2020-08-09 17:51 KST Modified on : 2020-08-09 17:51 KST
S. Korea reiterates basic general statement on alliance with US for third straight day
A meeting between then Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani (left) and then South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo in October 2015. (Yonhap News)
A meeting between then Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani (left) and then South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo in October 2015. (Yonhap News)

Japan’s effective decision to proceed with acquiring “enemy base strike capabilities” that would allow it to carry out strikes on missile bases in nearby countries such as North Korea and China is raising questions regarding its potential impact on inter-Korean relations and East Asian politics. The possibility of a misjudgment of overreaction by Japan leaving the Korean Peninsula facing the threat of war raises a growing need for stronger communication between the two sides’ defense authorities.

In a regular press conference on Aug. 4, Japanese Minister of Defense Taro Kono shared some very noteworthy comments on the matter of Japan possessing enemy base strike capabilities. Responding to a reporter who raised the importance of “the understanding of neighboring countries” if Japan is to possess capabilities that it has not had in the past due to its Peace Constitution and other constraints, Kono responded, “Why do we need that sort of understanding at a time when China is beefing up its missile capabilities?” He also asked, “Why do we need South Korea’s permission when it’s a matter of defending our own territory?”

Yet for a third straight day, the South Korean government merely reiterated a general position without stating a clear-cut view on the matter. After reports about Kono’s comments, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) said on Aug. 5 said that it was “our government’s consistent position that the South Korea-US alliance must be the center of any response to an emergency on the Korean Peninsula.”

In a regular press conference on Aug. 6, the MND responded to a question about whether any diplomatic action would be taken between the two sides’ defense authorities by saying, “The government has not taken any separate action, but our understanding is that Japan is adhering to the basic concept of an ‘exclusively defensive posture’ in accordance with its Peace Constitution.”

In another regular press conference the same day, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) Spokesperson Kim In-chul avoided responding directly on the issue. “As far as I’m aware, the Ministry of National Defense explained that this has been the consistent position of the South Korean government,” he said.

But Japan’s acquisition of enemy base strike capabilities is already turning into a foregone conclusion that will be difficult to avoid. On the morning of Aug. 4, a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) policy coordination and review council made a proposal to the government to the effect that Japan “needs a new response” to improve its deterrence capabilities, including the ability to stop ballistic missiles within other countries’ territory. In response, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the matter would be “thoroughly discussed by the National Security Council,” adding that he intended to “accept the suggestion and present a new direction to be swiftly implemented.”

Japanese news outlets predicted that related details would be included in December amendments of the National Security Strategy -- which defines the general framework of Japan’s security strategy -- and the more concrete Defense Program Guidelines and Medium-Term Defense Program associated with it.

Japan seems to view N. Korea, China, and Russia as increasingly urgent threats

The decision -- which emphatically goes beyond the principle of an “exclusively defense posture” that Japan has adhered to for the 75 years since World War II – appears to have been based on a determination that the missile threats posed by North Korea, China, and Russia have increased to a level beyond the scope of the existing US-Japan alliance framework, in which Japan focuses on defense while leaving any offense to the US. Indeed, a look at the LDP proposal on Aug. 4 showed it explaining the reasons for Japan needing its own enemy base strike capabilities by noting that “China, Russia, and others have been developing hypersonic glide vehicles, while North Korea has been test-launching missiles that appear to be capable of flying with irregular trajectories at low altitudes.”

South Korea’s only consistent stance on the issue is that “only the Republic of Korea can make decisions regarding military action on the Korean Peninsula, and no one may make decisions on military action without the Republic of Korea’s consent,” as President Moon Jae-in declared in a National Liberation Day celebratory address on Aug. 15, 2017. It’s a case where close communication and the establishment of trust among military authorities is crucially important -- yet the emotional divide between the two sides’ military authorities is as deep as it has ever been since a South Korean Supreme Court ruling on forced labor in October 2018 and an incident shortly afterwards involving a threatening flyby by a Japanese patrol aircraft.

Cho Jin-goo, a professor at the Kyungnam University Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said, “It’s times like this that show the need to initiate strategic dialogue under a ‘2+2’ format with the South Korean and Japanese ministers of foreign affairs and defense participating in response to a changing international situation and the core of national strategy.”

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter, and Park Byong-su, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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