North Korean missiles are causing nationalist stirrings in Japan

by Anna Fifield / 26 September, 2017
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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe inspects troops of the Self Defense Forces in 2016. Photo/Getty Images

Each incoming missile helps Japanese PM Shinzō Abe argue that the Japanese military should return to a normal footing.

Two North Korean missiles have now flown over Japan in little more than two weeks. That’s as many as had soared over the country in the previous two decades – and those first two were cast as satellite-launch vehicles, one of which Pyongyang had the courtesy to inform Tokyo about in advance.

There’s been no pretence with these latest rockets. Kim Jong-un’s regime has made it clear he’s working towards being able to send a nuclear-armed missile across Japan and onwards to the US mainland.

In a typically offensive North Korean statement, Pyongyang just warned Tokyo that it’s in the firing line. It told the “wicked Japs” that “Japan is no longer needed to exist near us” and said it “should be sunken into the sea by [our] nuclear bomb”.

These threats are in line with North Korea’s inglorious history of outrageous threats. For years, Pyongyang has been threatening to turn Japan into a “nuclear sea of fire”.

But this time, things feel a bit more serious for many Japanese.

Partly, it’s because North Korea has made such astonishing strides with its nuclear-weapons programme. Its underground nuclear test on September 3 was enormous – 10-18 times the size of the explosion that destroyed Hiroshima. And its missiles are succeeding more often and flying further.

It’s also partly because Kim has been impervious to outside appeals to stop and has shown no concern for the safety of neighbouring Japan. He gave no warning of the two recent missile launches over Japan, alarming fishermen and airline passengers.

North Korean missiles have a habit of breaking up in the air, posing a risk for residents beneath the flight path. After the most recent launch, the Japanese Government warned residents in the northern-most island of Hokkaido not to touch any suspicious debris.

So far, there has been no damage or injury, but Japan isn’t taking any chances. During the two missile firings, cellphones beeped with emergency alerts and loudspeakers crackled into life – part of Japan’s earthquake-warning system. They advised residents to take cover in a basement or a sturdy building.

There are only about 10 minutes between a missile being launched and it reaching Japan, so there’s not much time to receive and heed the warning.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has said his Government will be prepared for every contingency. A few months ago, the Government added ballistic-missile response guidelines to its civil defence advice. Since then, drills have been carried out in parts of the country that might be on a missile’s flight path. I went to one and saw a schoolgirl gasp when told the warhead would be as tall as her.

At my son’s school, missile response has been added to the regular emergency drills. They now practise going into the school basement, although thankfully the kids aren’t told why.

Although the chances of a missile landing on Japanese territory are slim, and the chances of its landing on my son’s school are even slimmer, this preparation is just prudent.

But it also conveniently helps nationalist Abe advance his argument that the Japanese military should return to a normal footing after seven decades of US-imposed pacifism.

Even a year ago, this idea was hugely controversial. But with each incoming missile, Kim is making Abe’s case for him.

Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, is Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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