“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.”
In March, Mr. Onodera led a committee of lawmakers from the governing Liberal Democratic Party in recommending that Japan consider acquiring the ability to carry out pre-emptive strikes. His views could be reflected in an updated five-year military strategy that is to be published by the Defense Ministry next year.
Japan has already committed to buying advanced F-35 fighter planes, and it is shopping for an upgraded land-based missile defense system to improve its chances of shooting down any incoming North Korean missiles.
North Korea escalated its standoff with the United States and other nations on Tuesday, warning that it would take unspecified “physical action” in retaliation for new sanctions the United Nations Security Council adopted over the weekend.