The Aso government and the LDP have used the prospective launch to show its decisiveness. In anticipation of the launch, a joint session of the LDP Policy Research Council’s defense division, national security investigative committee, and base countermeasures ad hoc committee recommended on 24 March that Japan prepare to intercept debris from the rocket falling on Japan with either seaborne SM-3 interceptors or, failing that, land-based PAC-3 interceptors. That same day the LDP-Komeito North Korean missile problem countermeasures headquarters reviewed the government’s options in responding to the launch, stressing cooperation at the UN Security Council and commitment to the Six-Party talks as well as the possibility of more sanctions on North Korea, while preparing Japan’s missile defenses and opening lines of communication with localities in advance of the missile launch.
On 25 March, the chief cabinet secretary and the foreign and defense ministers discussed and agreed upon Japan’s response and on 27 March, the cabinet discussed Japan’s response and Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu issued an order deploying Japan’s missile defenses in preparation for destroying any debris that might fall on Japan, at the same time that Prime Minister Aso sought to reassure the public that the government is doing everything in its power to minimize the danger from the launch.
Since issuing the order, the JSDF has sprung into action. On the morning of 28 March, the Kongo and the Chokai, Aegis-equipped destroyers armed with SM-3s, departed from Sasebo to take up positions in the Sea of Japan. A third Aegis-equipped destroyer, the Kirishima, deployed from Yokosuka to Japan’s Pacific coast from where it will track the flight of the rocket. Meanwhile, PAC3 interceptors arrived in Akita and Iwate prefectures on Monday evening, although not without incident. (Akita and Iwate have been designated as risk zones for falling debris.) The government has also made plans for recovering debris should it fall offshore.
All of this may be for naught. As one senior government official had the courage to suggest in the midst of the government’s ostentatious preparations, despite missile defense system trials, there is no guarantee that Japan’s missile defenses will work under real conditions. The MSDF is one for two in SM-3 trials, while the US Navy is thirteen for sixteen, but not only were the tests conducted in controlled settings, but Japan’s missile defense system is intended for North Korea’s medium-range missiles, not errant pieces of a long-range rocket. Foreign Minister Nakasone Hirofumi acknowledged the difficulty on 24 March, but that was before the government decided to order preparations for a most unlikely interception and he has since backtracked on his skepticism, stating in Diet proceedings that “it is natural for Japan” to intercept the debris given the fears of damage to lives and property. And even if the JSDF manages to intercept the debris, the defense minister admitted that there is still the risk of damage should the remaining fragments fall on Japanese territory.
The Japanese government’s very public preparations are akin to the post-9/11 rituals of airport security (derisively referred to as “security theater”), the repetitive, cosmetic measures implemented by the federal government that many have argued provide the illusion of aviation security rather than actual security. Even as senior officials, including a cabinet minister, questioned Japan’s ability to shoot down ballistic missiles, let alone unguided missile debris, the Aso government has made a public show of acting as if it is only natural that Japan’s relatively untested missile defenses will be up to the task, all the while assuring the public that they have nothing to fear. Arguably the government’s response has only heightened the sense of alarm, especially among residents of the prefectures now hosting JSDF PAC3s. More importantly, the Aso government’s security kabuki — to coin a phrase — may undermine Japan’s security over the long term. What will the public response be should debris fall on Japan and the JSDF spectacularly fail to intercept it, especially if the falling debris is the source of casualties or property damage? Japanese might — unfairly given that the system isn’t designed to shoot down debris — come to question the government’s substantial outlays on missile defense.
The comparison with the US response is revealing. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated plainly in a television appearance that the US will not attempt to shoot down the missile, even as the US Navy has deployed its own Aegis-equipped warships to the Sea of Japan. The US has, of course, agreed with Japan and South Korea to refer the missile launch to the UN Security Council as a violation of UN Security Council resolution 1718, but the US has refrained from a premature overreaction to the pending launch, wisely I think. Gates’s remarks are indicative of a certain degree of powerlessness on the part of the US, Japan, and the other participants in the Six-Party talks, with the partial exception of China. It appears that all are in a holding pattern, following North Korea’s failure to deliver on last year’s commitments, waiting for something — most likely a leadership change in Pyongyang — to break the stalemate. I just hope that the five parties are planning for that eventuality.
I recognize that the Japanese government is unable to treat the rocket launch as nonchalantly as the US, by virtue of geography (the US, after all, doesn’t have to worry about debris falling on its territory), public opinion (overwhelmly supportive of the government’s response, according to a Sankei poll — even JCP supporters tended to be more supportive than not), path dependency (having pursued a hard line up until now, the government could hardly do otherwise), a desire to somehow rectify Japan’s unpreparedness when North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 over Japan in 1998, and Prime Minister Aso’s ideological tendencies. But the government better hope that should North Korea go through with the launch, no debris falls on Japan, because the damage it could cause in the likely event that an attempted intercept fails would be enough to destroy the Aso government, which has enjoyed a slight recovery in its support of late.