What would happen if a North Korean missile were to land not in the ocean, but on the Japanese archipelago? What if people were injured or killed? Would Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) leap into action? Would the U.S. military respond? Would U.S. President Donald Trump, despite his slogan of "America First," defend Japan? Would he attack a military base in North Korea, like he did in Syria?
I posed these questions to a senior Japanese government official and a former senior SDF official.
Missiles are a threat, but it's human nature to underestimate them if they land in the ocean one after another.
Since the beginning of this year, North Korea has shot eight missiles on five separate occasions. Three, including the most recent one, misfired, and the rest fell into the ocean. Last year, North Korea shot 38 missiles on 19 occasions. Nine misfired, while the remaining 29 landed in the ocean.
The Japanese archipelago is completely within range of North Korea's missiles. The North Korean government is said to have claimed that it is targeting U.S. military bases in Japan, but there's no guarantee that outside of those bases, Japan would be safe.
Japan's two-tiered anti-missile defense comprises Japanese and U.S. Aegis vessels (high-performance escort vessels, destroyers and cruisers) that can detect and intercept missiles, and ground-based inceptor missiles.
Most experts say it would be difficult for a missile to land on Japanese soil without it being intercepted, but there is a possibility that even if a missile were detected, it could get past Japan's defense system.
Let's suppose that a missile does land on Japan. If it fell on a highly populated area it would injure and kill many people -- even if it weren't mounted with a nuclear or chemical weapon.
If that were to happen, the prime minister, based on the Civil Protection Act, would recognize the incident as a "situation in which Japan has come under military attack," order SDF troops to mobilize, and inform the United Nations that Japan is exercising its right to self-defense.
However, because the SDF has a defense-only policy, it cannot retaliate. SDF escort vessels are not equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles that the U.S. military recently used against the Syrian regime. (The missiles have a maximum range of 2,500 kilometers, can read terrain, and are operated remotely.)
The SDF does have bombs. It would be technically possible to load F-15 fighter jets with bombs and drop them on North Korea, but the SDF is not trained to carry out a mission like that. Meanwhile, North Korea is reportedly in possession of 3,400 missiles that can shoot down aircraft invading its airspace, of which 1,700 are said to be fully deployed.
"Doing something like that would be a suicide mission," the former senior SDF official said. "No SDF pilot is going to agree to do that."
That's where the U.S. military comes in. Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty states, "Each party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes."
"In such a situation (as the landing of a North Korean missile on Japanese soil), the Japan-U.S. alliance would end if the U.S. were to say, 'We're having no part of this. That's why I think the U.S. military would act,'" remarked the senior government official.
The aforementioned former senior SDF official said, "The U.S. Seventh Fleet will spring into action and fire Tomahawk missiles. What's likely to unfold is what the U.S. recently did in Syria."
However, North Korea is in possession of nuclear weapons. How do we assess the situation with that in mind?
The international community today effectively accepts retaliation by countries that are subjected to a military attack and their allies, if the attack results in injuries and deaths. There is debate about whether the retaliatory actions are valid under international law, but such debate exists only as a side note.
This trend toward the tacit approval of "justice through force" has grown more prominent since 1999, when NATO bombed Kosovo in the final years of the armed conflict in former Yugoslavia, citing humanitarian reasons. North Korea also operates under the banner of "justice through force." Japan and the U.S., meanwhile, say that North Korea's threats are ineffective against their bilateral alliance.
Japan may be a country of peace but it does not have the option of abandoning self-defense. At the same time, the world is utterly worn out by a chain of retaliation. What is up for discussion is not merely one's ability to retaliate. What we need is the wisdom to promote peaceful change. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)