Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


North Korea's Missile Show Tests Japan's Tolerance

US satellites reveal a second launch could come soon. Japan scrambles to respond.

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 1998



TOKYO

For North Korea, one ballistic missile may deserve another.

Skip to next paragraph

The governments of Japan and South Korea yesterday prepared for a possible second missile launch by North Korea, which startled the world on Monday by firing a two-stage rocket over the northern part of the Japanese archipelago.

That missile's nosecone splashed harmlessly in the Pacific, but forced the Japanese to address new anxieties about the intentions and capabilities of their unpredictable neighbor. Worry quickly turned to anger, and Japan has this week engaged in some unusually stern and decisive foreign policy - including the de facto freezing of a deal intended to prevent North Korea from producing nuclear weapons.

North Korea's principal reply has been to chastise Japan for "making a fuss," but this insouciance seems to grate still further on Japanese officials.

"It is a very insincere statement," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka yesterday. "Japan strongly protests this response."

Satellites spot more

Preparations for a possible second launch were spotted by American satellites, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, but a senior official of Japan's Defense Agency says North Korea would probably not fire a second two-stage rocket. Instead it is expected to test a missile in its Nodong series, which has range of 600 to 700 miles - powerful enough to reach parts of Japan, but not as intimidating as Monday's rocket.

Still, the official says the Defense Agency has sent extra ships and aircraft into the Sea of Japan, since the second test may occur in the next few days. Yonhap says that South Korea has put its military on alert. (The United States military, which maintains approximately 83,000 troops at bases in Japan and South Korea, said it was not on alert.)

These military measures do not, however, compare with more significant diplomatic responses. In addition to freezing the nuclear deal, Japan has also put on hold talks with North Korea aimed at establishing diplomatic relations and has said it will not consider requests for food assistance from the North, which is suffering from severe shortages due to natural disasters and its inefficient, centrally planned economy.

Japan and South Korea yesterday announced an unprecedented plan to engage in joint military exercises, and analysts here say North Korea's testing may push Japan to participate in a costly missile-defense program with the US. Many Japanese are also privately expressing frustration with their country's apparent vulnerability. "We need our own defense network," says one Tokyo businessman, who didn't want his name to appear.

Japan has also canceled chartered flights to and from South Korea for the foreseeable future. "We will call this a 'measure,' " says Foreign Ministry spokesman Sadaaki Numata, "but not necessarily a 'sanction.'" Indeed, Japan could take actions that would hit North Korea more immediately, such as canceling a ferry service that links the country with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Korean residents of Japan.

The government could also cut trade with the North, since Japan is the country's second-largest trading partner after China. The Japanese External Trade Organization reports that North Korea and Japan exchanged goods worth nearly $474 million last year.

But a senior government official, who insists on anonymity, says Japan may want to maintain the ferry and the trade because they afford a way of obtaining information about North Korea. The country's Stalinist regime rarely admits foreigners, maintains absolute control over its media, and allows virtually no independent reporting.

Avoiding overreaction

The official explains that Japan must try not to overreact, since it does not want to appear to be sensitive to easy provocation. At the same time, underreacting might prompt North Korea to be even more aggressive, he adds.

Even so, the missile testing is generating some rare displays of Japanese aggression.

The Sankei newspaper, a generally conservative daily that warned of the possibility of a North Korean test nearly two weeks ago, fumed yesterday in an editorial, "In order to counter such a threat, we have to establish a cold, merciless policy of power politics.We also have to let [the North Koreans] know that we have the option of attacking launch sites in North Korea in self-defense."