Weak by Design, Japan Ponders Its Missile Gap

North Korea test reminds economic giant of its weakness and reliance on US.

North Korea is in a tricky neighborhood for missile testing. Shooting a rocket into China or Russia would be like pricking a bear with a needle. Lobbing a missile over South Korea - a nation perpetually coiled in anticipation of an attack from the North - would also invite trouble.

That leaves only one option: Firing over Japan, the only country in the region that won't shoot back. Japan is an economic giant, but in some ways it is also a weakling, and the Aug. 31 missile test has stung the Japanese with fresh reminders of their vulnerability.

"We have been trying to forge peaceful and friendly relations with North Korea, but the firing of the missile is nothing but betrayal," complains Yoshiro Mori, the secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The day after North Korea sent a ballistic missile arcing over the northern part of Japan, officials in Tokyo acknowledged that Japan was entirely dependent on the United States for information about the test. It also had to admit that its defense against missiles - the Patriot system used by the US in the Gulf War - is inadequate against the type North Korea demonstrated.

Although the North Koreans tested a missile capable of reaching some parts of Japan in 1993, this most recent test showed off a missile with a much longer range. The awareness that North Korea can land a warhead just about anywhere in Japan may encourage Japan's government to undertake a costly missile-defense project in cooperation with the US. But analysts say there won't be a significant shift in the way Japanese think about security.

As much as the Japanese are sometimes frustrated by their frailties and reliance on America, they know that for now, it must be thus. "Nothing will change fundamentally," says Akira Kato, a defense specialist at Obirin University in Tokyo. "The dependence on the US will always be there." According to a 1960 treaty, the US is bound to defend Japan from attack, and it backs up the pledge by maintaining an aircraft carrier, a division of US Marines, and thousands of other troops at bases here.

Japan's well-equipped military, called the Self-Defense Forces, are constrained by a pacifist Constitution that was drafted under US supervision after World War II. So while some officials yearn for a spy satellite that could detect a missile launch, even the North Korean test may not give them the momentum to overcome legal restrictions against using space for military purposes.

The main reason is that many ordinary Japanese, still pained by memories of the war, are wary of any policy or statement that even hints of militarism, as are a lot of other Asian countries. In a conversation a few days before the test, a senior government official involved in defense issues noted that the "the best way to deter a missile attack by North Korea is for Japan to have the same capability." And then he acknowledged that Japan's acquisition of such weapons would be impossible for the time being.

Even on the question of missile defense, Japan is struggling to satisfy the US, which wants help in developing the program, and China, which is worried that such a capability could spur an arms race in Northeast Asia. Since early last year US officials have voiced pessimism that Japan would join the so-called Theater Missile Defense (TMD) project, saying the government in Tokyo does not want to spend the money or offend China.

There are a variety of scenarios for how TMD would work, but the main idea is to use satellite surveillance in concert with land- and sea-based missiles to shoot down an enemy's missiles as they approach. Some aspects of the "Star Wars"-style technology have been proven, but much remains untested. The project would require a multibillion-dollar investment over several years.

The Japanese debate focuses on effectiveness and cost, especially in light of the country's current economic troubles. Even its proponents, like Professor Kato, are wary. "The North Korean testing will create a favorable wind for the pro-TMD thinkers in the Defense Agency," he says, adding that he remains skeptical that the project will ever work as envisioned. Nonetheless, he says, "Japan should definitely go ahead with the TMD project."

Many defense analysts and some politicians made similar statements in recent days. The issue is becoming politically important, since leaders may want to appear that they are trying to answer North Korea's threat. Kato says the project will have the added benefit "of keeping Japan's defense industry going."

There have been reports in Japanese newspapers that the government is holding back a TMD-related budget request for fear of offending China, but the senior government official says the delay is due to the need for continued study of US proposals for Japan's participation.

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