Japanese tanks during a 2016 exercise in Gotemba, southwest of Tokyo. Japan’s government said on Tuesday that North Korea may have already acquired nuclear warheads. (Credit: Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)
Japanese tanks during a 2016 exercise in Gotemba, southwest of Tokyo. Japan’s government said on Tuesday that North Korea may have already acquired nuclear warheads. (Credit: Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear program has prompted politicians in Japan and South Korea to push for the deployment of more powerful weapons, in what could lead to a regional arms race.

Some of the new capabilities under consideration in Tokyo and Seoul, Washington’s closest Asian allies, are politically contentious. Adopting them would break with decades of precedent and could require delicate diplomatic finessing. Other military options are already being rolled out or will be soon.

In a military policy review published on Tuesday, the Japanese government focused on the threat from North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong-un, has ordered more than a dozen missile tests this year. Some of those missiles have splashed into waters close to Japan.

“North Korea’s development of ballistic missiles and its nuclear program are becoming increasingly real and imminent problems for the Asia-Pacific region including Japan, as well as the rest of the world,” the government in Tokyo said in its annual defense white paper. “It is possible that North Korea has already achieved the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and has acquired nuclear warheads.”

That bleak assessment is likely to feed a growing debate in Japan about whether the country should acquire the means to launch pre-emptive military strikes — attacks that could destroy North Korean missiles on the ground before they are fired at Japan or other targets. Lawmakers are already pushing for such capacities; acquiring them would amount to a profound change for Japan, whose post-World War II Constitution renounces war.

Japan has long limited its military to a strictly defensive role. Although successive governments have argued that, in theory, striking an enemy pre-emptively to thwart an imminent attack would be an act of self-defense, and therefore constitutional, the country has mostly avoided acquiring the kind of armaments it would need to do so. They include long-range cruise missiles, air-to-ground missiles and refueling aircraft that extend the range of fighter jets.

Some senior officials are now arguing that Japan should acquire such weapons.

“North Korea’s missile launches have escalated tensions, both in terms of quality and quantity,” Itsunori Onodera, Japan’s new defense minister, said on Friday, a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe installed him in the post in a cabinet reshuffle. “I would like to study if our current missile defense is sufficient.”

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SOURCE: JONATHAN SOBLE and CHOE SANG-HUN 
The New York Times

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