Japan’s Role in the North Korean crisis will remain a marginal one

By Andrea Fischetti

A North Korean Hwasong-12 missile, the model fired on August 29th (Credit: KCNA)


The latest missile test conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on September 15 was the second in a row to directly involve Japan. The Korean intermediate range missile flew over the land of the rising sun for the second time in two weeks, and these tests undoubtedly pose a new challenge to Japan’s institutional pacifism, reawakening the debate on whether Japan needs to possess offensive military capabilities. However, Japan’s role in the North Korean crisis remains limited, and the country is not likely to become a key actor alongside the U.S. and South Korea in tackling the regime of the Kim dinasty.

In the early morning of August 29, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) launched a ballistic missile: Pyongyang’s fourth test in four days (Held, 2017). The country has tested more than fifteen missiles since February (USPACOM, 2017), and their effectiveness gradually improved, a sign that its current weapons program will not stop until it reaches its goal. North Korea’s ultimate objective, is considered to be a nuclear warhead-topped missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Such a weapon would secure the position of the Kim dynasty, as Pyongyang believes it would deter the U.S. from interfering in the Korean Peninsula. The DPRK conducted a further test on September 15, which flew once again over Japanese territories.

The August 29 test was the first to involve a missile going over Japan without being announced or preceded by any warning. The intermediate-range ballistic missile Hwasong-12, known as NK-17, was fired over Japan’s territory, specifically the northern island of Hokkaido. Residents were given a short-notice warning inviting them to take cover, and the missile flew in Japanese airspace for almost  two minutes. The act was condemned by the US and its allies, including Japan and South Korea; while China stated that the North Korean situation had reached a “tipping point”. Pyongyang’s latest missile launch seemed to affect Japan more than any other country, as it passed over Japanese territory.

Nonetheless, the North Korean tensions are far more threatening for other countries than for Japan, and Tokyo’s role in this situation remains only a marginal one compared to that of the U.S. or South Korea. As reporter Kjeld Duits pointed out, since 1998, North Korea’s tests violated Japan’s EEZ and airspace many times, three of which during the last  two months. Pyongyang’s declared  ambition, however, is that of being able to hit U.S. territories. In fact, the NK-17 that travelled over Hokkaido broke up more than 1180 Kilometres from Japan’s mainland, suggesting that the country never was an objective in the first place. The missile’s range has been estimated to be 4000 Kilometres, which potentially makes Guam – and its American military base – a realistic  objective. Furthermore, North Korea has a number of short-range capabilities which can cause significant damage to nearby potential targets such as Seoul in South Korea. Arguably, that is the biggest threat that North Korea poses in the short term, and the reason why the U.S. must be careful in dealing with Pyongyang.

Accordingly, South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered a show of “overwhelming force” (Crabtree and Kemp, 2017) against North Korea, involving the dropping of bombs near the Northern border and joint drills of four South Korean F-15 fighter jets with four American F-35 stealth fighter jets and two B-1B American bombers, while U.S. President Donald Trump declared that “talking is not the answer”.

On the other hand, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe does not have the same freedom of operation. Firstly, although Japan has excellent missile defence systems, taking down high-altitude missiles fired from North Korea to territories beyond Japan – such as Guam – is legally challenging, and it would raise many questions about Japan’s stance on the use of military force for non-defensive purposes. This is due to Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, especially considering that Japan is not the target of the DPRK’s tests. Secondly, and more importantly, even considering the effectiveness of the modern Air Defence System MIM-104F (PAC-3) acquired by Japan, there would be technical challenges in shooting down Pyongyang’s missiles, as the system is designed to counter inbound offensive missiles at lower altitudes, instead of hitting the bottom part of the missile by chasing it at higher altitudes. In other words, for Japan it would be easier to shoot down a missile that is actually targeting Japan rather than one that is only flying over its territories.

Two days after Pyongyang’s test, Japan’s Defence Ministry requested a budget increase for 2018 (Pollmann, 2017) which would include enough funds for further developing its radar system and acquiring weapons capable of shooting down high-altitude missiles. The North Korea tensions, including the launch of a NK-17 over Hokkaido, come at a time when Prime Minister Abe’s approval rating is decreasing. Also, his plan to amend the Japanese Constitution, in particular its Article 9 which prevents Japan from possessing offensive military capabilities, is far from guaranteed to succeed. In order to meet popular demands of a country with strong anti-militaristic norms (Berger 1993; 1998) and which is more concerned with achieving peace and prosperity than security objectives, Abe’s rhetoric has been focusing on Japan’s role as a ‘proactive contributor to peace’. Whether this role involves shooting down North Korean missiles for non-defensive purposes, however, is unclear.

The decision to expand the country’s military budget and potentially have a more proactive role in Northeast Asian security could be partly justified by Pyongyang’s moves, in the eyes of  the Japanese population, due to the perceived threat to Japan’s security. However, while Japan is involved in the North Korean crisis for geopolitical reasons, it is not Pyongyang’s main concern. Similarly, Abe is capitalising on the increasingly frequent North Korean tests to justify the need of stronger military capabilities, but increasing Japan’s involvement in this situation is not his ultimate goal. The challenge that Abe is facing is achieving a balance between rhetoric  and moderate actions compatible with Japan’s current Constitution and the public opinion’s will.

While Japan’s public opinion has a negative view of North Korea, and this missile launch could influence the debate on Constitutional amendments, Japan’s public is ultimately more likely to support pacifist approaches to resolving this issue, and an overemphasis of the North Korean threat could end up being counterproductive for Abe’s goals. Kim Jong-Un’s behaviour seemed unaffected by the rhetoric of the U.S. and South Korea, their shows of force, and the UN sanctions; therefore, even by stepping up as a more central actor in the North Korea tensions, Japan would not be able change this trend.

In conclusion, Japan will keep honouring its alliance with the U.S., a country directly involved in the North Korea tensions. Abe will also attempt to emphasise the threat posed by Pyongyang for justifying his unpopular constitutional amendments. However, due to technical and legal constraints, it is unlikely that Japan’s role in this situation will significantly change in the short term.

Andrea Fischetti (@A_Fischetti) is an MA Candidate in War Studies at King’s College London specialising in East Asian Security and Japan. He recently earned a BA with First Class Honours in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies and worked for a year in the House of Commons. Andrea was a visiting student at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University and studied Japanese at SOAS and King’s College London. More information about Andrea can be found at www.about.me/afischetti



Berger, T. U. (1993) ‘From sword to chrysanthemum: Japan’s culture of anti-militarism’. International Security 17(4): 119-50.


Berger, T. U. (1998) Cultures of Antimilitarism: National Security in Germany and Japan. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.


Crabtree, J. and Kemp, T. (2017) ‘South Korean President Moon tells military to toughen up, orders show of ‘overwhelming’ force’. CNBC Defense.


Held, A. (2017) ”Restraint’ Appears To Be Over As North Korea Launches Missile Test Again’, NPR. Available at http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/08/26/546344429/restraint-appears-to-be-over-as-north-korea-launches-missile-test-again


Pollmann, M. (2017) ‘What’s in Japan’s Record 2018 Defense Budget Request?’ The Diplomat.


USPACOM (2017) North Korea Policy, US Pacific Command. Available at http://www.pacom.mil/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/1310112/north-korea-policy/

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