North Korea has joined the ranks of countries that Vice President Joe Biden famously predicted would “test” an inexperienced President Obama’s resolve. With Pyongyang’s launch of a Taepodong 2 missile, it is a step closer to its decades-long quest for a missile force that can hit the United States and her Asian allies with nuclear weapons. No one should be surprised that North Korea again defied warnings, broke diplomatic commitments, and violated U.N. resolutions. It does so as a matter of course. Why shouldn’t it, when it continues to secure economic and political goodies after every provocation? But if North Korea’s behavior has been fairly consistent over the last few decades, Japan’s view of its alliance with Washington is changing with each new misdeed by Kim Jong Il. The real test for President Obama will be how he reassures America’s key Asian ally.
As was the case during the last round of missile tests, Japan took the lead in condemning North Korea by pursuing tough U.N. sanctions. Since North Korea launched a missile over Japan in 1998, Japan has enhanced its ballistic-missile defense capabilities and identified the legal authorities that allow it to respond militarily within the confines of its pacifist constitution. In response to North Korea’s most recent provocation, Japan’s national-security authorities issued an order to “take measures to destroy ballistic missiles,” enabling it to destroy any debris that might have landed on Japan’s territory. Japan also deployed Aegis destroyers equipped with SM-3 surface-to-air interceptor missiles to the Sea of Japan and the Pacific, as well as Patriot Advanced Capability 3 missiles (PAC 3) to protect key assets in Japan.
But Tokyo harbored doubts about how Washington would react. While the U.S. also readied warships and missile-defense systems, it made clear that it would not intercept the missile. The Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, asserted that Washington has the capability to shoot down the missile. But before the launch, Secretary of Defense Gates stated the U.S. would not shoot it down unless it was headed towards U.S. territory. The message to Japan was clear: We will protect our territory but not yours.
This is just a further indication of a growing split in the American-Japanese perception of the threat from North Korea. During the latest round of multilateral North Korean disarmament negotiations, termed the Six Party Talks, in 2007, the U.S. broke from Japan by removing Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terror, never made North Korean missiles an issue for negotiation, and appeared ready to settle for a freeze of plutonium production at one known nuclear site, Yongbyon. Japan is still very concerned about other nuclear production sites and the highly-enriched-uranium program North Korea claimed it had in 2003. Essentially Washington’s policy amounts to accepting North Korea as a nuclear state, trying to deter it from proliferating, and defending the American homeland. This is not an altogether acceptable policy for a Japan that sits within range of North Korea’s short- and medium-range missile force and is usually the main recipient of North Korea’s rhetorical bellicosity.
Perhaps there really is no other option but to accept North Korea as a nuclear state, deter it from using or proliferating, and wait out Kim and his cronies. Even so, we owe our key ally more.
Pyongyang has given Tokyo an incentive to enhance its own security role, and we should keep encouraging that development. The United States and Japan have increased ballistic-missile defense cooperation over the past few years. And Japan is certainly more prepared to defend itself than it was a decade ago. But unfortunately the Obama administration has indicated that it will cut further development of missile defenses. North Korea’s launch was proof positive that this is exactly the wrong move. The two countries should explore all missile-defense options, including airborne lasers. Further, the two countries should start to build an independent conventional strike capability for Japan, to include export variants of the F-22 Raptor and the entire suite of air support and ISR capabilities needed for Japan to launch its own strikes against North Korean missile sites and launchers. Pyongyang may have checkmated the United States into passivity because of its ability to devastate South Korea. But Japan is not bound by an alliance with South Korea and has more freedom of action to defend itself, with less risk of escalation.
The U.S.-Japanese alliance is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, grounded in the joint promotion of democratic values and free-market principles. Washington cannot let Pyongyang create an irreparable rift between the two allies. If we have decided that we are moving to a containment policy, and all indications are that we have, we must help Japan defend itself during the many years it will take to wait for a more reasonable leadership to take charge in Pyongyang.
– Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow and Leslie Forgach is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.