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Essay and Opinion

Missile Commotion

April 20, 2009

Noriho URABE (Professor Emeritus , Kobe University Adviser , Japan Institute of Constitutional Law)

Roaring propaganda echoed as crazily as on the eve of a war. The government and the media were shouting as if a missile is being launched to attack Japan. To their shame, they even released a false report that "North Korea launched a missile" long before the rocket was actually launched. All those happened in relation to the launch of a North Korean "missile" on April 5.
North Korea had reported to the international aviation authorities that it would launch a satellite sometime between April 4 and 8. On April 5, it announced that a satellite was successfully put on orbit. It also released a video of the launch a couple of days later. What we saw in the North Korean official video was a three-stage rocket with something round which looked like a satellite attached to its head. However, the USA and Russia denied North Korean claim, by reporting that nothing had been put on orbit. Therefore, there is no way to verify whether the object launched on April 5 meant to be a satellite or something else. However, that may not make much difference, because both satellites and missiles are rocket-propelled. If satellites are being developed, the same technology can easily be adopted to develop missiles. In that, the international community's caution was well-reasoned: we may have to be alert when North Korea is acquiring the capability to launch long-distance missiles while developing nuclear weapons.
However, Japan's reaction was far from sensible. The Japanese government and the media asserted that a missile was being launched. NHK, for example, repeated its opinion that "North Korea is launching a missile while pretending that it's a satellite." On the other hand, South Korea reported much more rationally that "a rocket was launched," without clarifying if it was a satellite or a missile. Japan went even farther to quickly issue an order to intercept and destroy it, as if the "missile" had aimed at Japan. Aegis destroyers with interceptor missiles were dispatched; two in Japan Sea and another in the Pacific. Also on the ground, PAC3 interceptor missiles were disposed in Akita and Iwate prefectures and at Ichigaya in central Tokyo. Japan was fully prepared just like during a war.
The Japanese government explained that they were preparing for unexpected accidents or failures because the missile was going to fly over Japan. No detailed explanation was made regarding the real reason why they had to dispose an interceptor in Tokyo which was far away from the scheduled course. Even if Tokyo had been right below the route, rockets would have flown far above in the outer space. In case of any accidents or failures, can anything be really done to intercept something falling from outer space? What was that preparedness? Were they really anticipating an impossible event that a missile would attack Japan? Or, were they just taking advantage of this ideal opportunity to practice how to use the missile defense system? The media became nothing but a laughing stock when they reported in the areas far away from the route of the rocket that "In our prefecture, no serious disorder has been observed." after everything was over.
If they want to talk about North Korean missiles' threat, the only threat regarding the launch this March ‚`‚‚’‚‰‚Œ was the minimum possibility of accidents and failure. Nothing else was added to the existing threat, because North Korea already possesses medium-range missiles which can reach Japan. It is estimated that those missiles are already disposed for use. Therefore, Japan does not have to make a fuss about the launch, as it adds nothing new to the existing threat. The USA may face a new threat in case North Korea develops long-range missiles which can directly attack its mainland. Yet, the US expressed that the rocket test was not regarded a direct threat against it. Japan's reaction was outstanding.
Japan insisted on declaring the North Korean action to be "violation of the UN resolution" at the UN Security Committee while the US submitted a more moderate draft announcing it was "inconsistent with" the resolution. South Korea acted in a clever diplomatic manner, passively supporting Japan's claim instead of showing off a firm attitude. As a result, Japan stood out alone to confront North Korea. Was it a right choice for Japan?
Prime Minister Aso and his administration might have chosen to make a big noise in order to attract people and to gain public support which is hovering too low to dissolve the House of Representatives and to call a general election. Such an action can also be effective to appeal the importance of Self Defense Forces. It is normal for those in power to create a visible enemy when they want to gain support. We may say that North Korea offered ideal opportunities to Japan by acting as a detectable enemy and launching a "missile." Kim Jong-il administration in North Korea is also encouraged by Japan's performance as its apparent enemy. The bigger noise Japan makes, the more attractive Kim looks. Japan is what North Korea needs to regain its popularity. The way Japan manifests its anger and confronts face to face may not be the best measures to cope with North Korean brinkmanship. Confrontation impairs negotiations that are necessary to solve remaining issues including nuclear development and abduction of Japanese people. We need to keep our head and see the reality, without echoing what the media and our government claim.