Star Wars

Japan Prepares to Shoot North Korean Missiles Out of the Sky

If, as feared, Pyongyang fires ballistic missiles in Japan’s direction this month, Tokyo and the United States intend to destroy them while they’re in outer space.

Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service, via AP

Like a batter waiting for a wicked pitch that might just hit his head, the Japanese are on alert—full scale military alert—waiting for the nuclear-armed crazies in North Korea to throw a missile in their direction. The Japanese think it’s coming soon, and they’re letting it be known (but quietly and in contradictory leaks) that they plan to knock it out of the park.

The question is: Can they? The other question is: Why don’t they want to talk about it publicly?

The answer to the second question might just be related to the first.

Japan’s ballistic missile defense system essentially depends on American-built Aegis destroyers equipped to shoot down missiles at the edge of space or, indeed, all the way out there beyond the atmosphere. But the enormously expensive Aegis systems aren’t entirely reliable. According to a Congressional Research Service report published last October (PDF), in tests since 2002 the Aegis BMD system has hit its target 28 out of 34 times, including three out of four test shots by the Aegis ships in the Japanese Navy. Theoretically, Patriot batteries on the ground would take out the six missiles that get through, and the Japanese Ministry of Defense has a nifty chart explaining how all that works. But if the day comes when those missiles carry nuclear warheads, one in four hitting home, or even one in six, is not all that encouraging. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you want to bat 1000.

The sense of urgency at the moment stems from concerns that on or around the official April 25 anniversary of the foundation of the North Korean People’s Army, Pyongyang will launch a ballistic missile towards Japan to show its military prowess. As if setting the scene, on March 26 North Korea fired two medium-range Rodong ballistic missiles into the sea—the first time in four years that the reclusive state fired anything capable of hitting Japan. When the U.N. Security Council condemned those launches North Korea said it would not rule out an unspecified “new form” of nuclear test.

On April 5, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met to discuss national security issues. A day later, Hagel announced that by 2017 two more Aegis ships will be sent to join the five already based in Japan, plus the six currently in the Japanese navy.

Tokyo also sent one of its Aegis destroyers to the Sea of Japan on April 3. The ship is expected to patrol the area until April 25 and possibly until the end of the month. Japanese media reported that Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera ordered the navy to shoot down any North Korean missiles, but the government did not publicly announce this decision.

Japan’s largest newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, reported that while the Aegis had been deployed, the Patriot system was not because it would attract too much public notice. The government wanted to avoid "making the public uneasy or provoking North Korea," according to the paper.

Japan and North Korea have recently resumed talks that were suspended due to Pyongyang’s test launch of a long-range missile more than a year ago. It’s assumed that Tokyo wants to keep the prickly North Koreas talking about their nuclear programs and their abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1980s and 1990s. An ostentatious display of Japanese military might could scuttle those negotiations.

But Takeshi Iwaya, a member of the Japanese House of Representatives and the Chairman of the Security Research Council of the Liberal Democratic Party—the current ruling party of Japan—put a different spin on the Japanese strategy of very quiet deployments.

Iwaya told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan that because North Korea “is not giving us prior notice before shooting missiles” Japan has to take measures to intercept them as soon as it sees indications of a launch, and “we don't notify the Japanese citizens each time.”

“The North Korean government is not exactly compos mentis,” says Grant Newsham, a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and former US Marine Corps liaison with Japanese forces. But it is “predictable in its childish grabs for attention. So the Japanese government shouldn't constantly be declaring an emergency every time the North Koreans decide they want to get some attention.”