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Japan Weighs Response To North Korea Missile Launch


Early this morning around 6 local time, people in northern Japan got an unusual wakeup call.


MCEVERS: Sirens went off. Trains stopped. Millions of cellphones buzzed with alerts from the Japanese government telling people to go to sturdy buildings or go underground. The alert said North Korea had launched a ballistic missile that would fly over Japan. The launch was one of the most provocative recent moves by North Korea as the Trump administration struggles with how to contain the threat from that country.

To understand how Japan might respond and what that means for the U.S., I am joined by Sheila Smith. She's an expert in Japanese politics and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to the show.

SHEILA SMITH: Thank you for having me, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So the Japanese president, Shinzo Abe, called this missile launch a grave and critical threat. I mean what did you think when you heard about it?

SMITH: Well, I think it was interesting in context. Of course the Japanese have for the last 18 months or so now been at the end of a number of missile tests by the North Koreans. None of them have gone over Japanese territory.


SMITH: But many of them have fallen in Japanese - the exclusive economic zone in the waters just offshore. But I think the context is of course we've just had this rhetorical exchange between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, that has really elevated the anxieties in the region. And I think it looked for a moment like Kim Jong Un had stepped back from his threat to send missiles to Guam. But now he's back at it. And he's done it in a slightly different trajectory, but he's done it over and into Japanese airspace.

MCEVERS: How do you think Japan will respond?

SMITH: So the Japanese, as you know, have a defensive military posture. They have issued offensive weapons in the postwar period, largely a legacy of World War II. They have a constitution of course that says their military forces are only for self-defense. And the government has been pretty consistent in interpreting that document that way.

Nonetheless, the ballistic missile threat from North Korea has prompted the Japanese to develop a fairly sophisticated ballistic missile defense system along with the United States. So we are deeply integrated with the Japanese military out there. And I think the question is, when would the Japanese use that system? And the prime minister has been very clear that if the security of the Japanese people or Japanese territory is threatened, then the Japanese will respond. So this morning, we're a little bit on the edge of that, right? There was no warhead on the missile.


SMITH: There was no direct threat that this was an imminent military attack. But nonetheless, it violated Japanese territorial airspace, something that almost any other country would see as a threat.

MCEVERS: I mean what's the feeling in Tokyo right now? I mean are officials worried?

SMITH: I think so. This is not the first time that North Korean missiles have gone across Japanese airspace, but it is the first time when the intent of North Korea seems to be provocative and seems to be threatening to the Japanese. And so Prime Minister Abe this morning was very clear in trying to reassure the Japanese people that the government was ready to defend them should it be necessary. I think there's going to be an enhancement of their ballistic missile defense system given the accelerated testing of these missiles.

But I think there's also a debate that's about to emerge in Japan about - perhaps it's time for Japan to get its own missiles to have an offensive capability so that North Korea won't make a mistake and misjudge the Japanese willingness to respond to the use of force against them.

MCEVERS: That would be a whole new step entirely. And that of course would change its relationship with its neighbors, no?

SMITH: It would. It would not only signal Pyongyang. It would also I think signal to China that the Japanese are more militarily prepared to use force than they've ever been since the end of World War II.

MCEVERS: How close do you think Japan is to that kind of decision and off in, you know, getting their own weapons?

SMITH: Well, the current minister of defense has raised this topic. I think this is a conversation that you will see evolve with the United States. He's made it very clear that this would not be a preemptive strike capability but rather would be a retaliatory capability in the case that North Korea use force against Japan. I think it will be very closely discussed with Washington if it will be seen as an alliance capability, not as an autonomous Japanese strike capability.

MCEVERS: Sheila Smith is an expert in Japanese politics and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you so much.

SMITH: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.