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Japan increasingly nervous about North Korea nukes

By Eric Talmadge

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 08:16 p.m. HST, Apr 08, 2013

TOKYO >> It’s easy to write off North Korea’s threats to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile as bluster: It has never demonstrated the capability to deploy a missile that could reach the Pacific island of Guam, let alone the mainland U.S.

But what about Japan?

Though it remains a highly unlikely scenario, Japanese officials have long feared that if North Korea ever decides to play its nuclear card it has not only the means but several potential motives for launching an attack on Tokyo or major U.S. military installations on Japan’s main island. And while a conventional missile attack is far more likely, Tokyo is taking North Korea’s nuclear rhetoric seriously.

Amid reports North Korea is preparing a missile launch or another nuclear test, Japan on Tuesday deployed PAC-3 missile interceptors in key locations around Tokyo. Japan has taken similar measures before, but has never actually tried to shoot down a North Korean missile and was not expected to try to do so unless there was a clear threat to Japanese territory.

Japan’s defense minister has also reportedly put destroyers with missile interception systems on alert in the Sea of Japan.

“We are doing all we can to protect the safety of our nation,” chief Cabinet spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Monday, though he and Ministry of Defense officials refused to confirm the reports about the naval alert, saying they do not want to “show their cards” to North Korea.

North Korea, meanwhile, issued a new threat against Japan.

“We once again warn Japan against blindly toeing the U.S. policy,” said an editorial Monday in the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of its ruling party. “It will have to pay a dear price for its imprudent behavior.”  

Following North Korea’s third nuclear test in February, Japanese experts have increasingly voiced concerns that North Korea may already be able to hit — or at least target — U.S. bases and major population centers with nuclear warheads loaded onto its medium-range Rodong missiles.

“The threat level has jumped” following the nuclear test, said Narushige Michishita, a former Ministry of Defense official and director of the Security and International Studies Program at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

Unlike North Korea’s still-under-construction intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, program, its arsenal of about 300 deployed Rodong missiles has been flight tested and is thought to have a range of about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles).

That is good enough to reach Tokyo and key U.S. military bases — including Yokota Air Base, which is the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Air Force; Yokosuka Naval Base, where the USS George Washington aircraft carrier and its battle group are home-based;  and Misawa Air Base, a key launching point for U.S. F-16 fighters.

Michishita, in an analysis published late last year, said a Rodong missile launched from North Korea would reach Japan within five to 10 minutes and, if aimed at the center of Tokyo, would have a 50-percent probability of falling somewhere within the perimeter of Tokyo’s main subway system.

He said Japan would be a particularly tempting target because it is close enough to feasibly reach with a conventionally or nuclear-armed missile, and the persistent animosity and distrust dating back to Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula in 1910 provides an ideological motive.

Also, a threat against Japan could be used to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington. North Korea could, for example, fire one or more Rodong missiles toward Tokyo but have them fall short to frighten Japan’s leaders into making concessions, stay out of a conflict on the peninsula or oppose moves by the U.S. forces in Japan to assist the South Koreans, lest Tokyo suffer a real attack.

“Given North Korea’s past adventurism, this scenario is within the range of its rational choices,” Michishita wrote.

Officials stress that simply having the ability to launch an attack does not mean it would be a success. They also say North Korea is not known to have actually deployed any nuclear-tipped missiles.

Tokyo and Washington have invested billions of dollars in what is probably the world’s most sophisticated ballistic missile defense shield since North Korea sent a long-range Taepodong missile over Japan’s main island in 1998. Japan now has its own land- and sea-based interceptors and began launching spy satellites after the “Taepodong shock” to keep its own tabs on military activities inside North Korea.

For the time being, most experts believe, North Korea cannot attack the United States with a nuclear warhead because it can’t yet fashion one light enough to mount atop a long-range ICBM. But Japanese analysts are not alone in believing North Korea has cleared the “miniaturization” problem for its medium-range weapons.      

In April 2005, Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korea had the capability to arm a missile with a nuclear device. In 2011, the same intelligence agency said North Korea “may now have” plutonium-based nuclear warheads that it can deliver by ballistic missiles, aircraft or “unconventional means.”

The Pentagon has since backtracked, saying it isn’t clear how small a nuclear warhead the North can produce.

But David Albright, a physicist at the Institute for Science and International Security think tank, said in an email he believes the North can arm Rodong missiles with nuclear warheads weighing as much as several hundred kilograms (pounds) and packing a yield in the low kilotons.

That is far smaller than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki but big enough to cause significant casualties in an urban area.

Japan also is a better target than traditional enemy South Korea because striking so close to home with a nuclear weapon would blanket a good part of its own population with the fallout.

Regardless of whom North Korea strikes — with a nuclear or conventional weapon — it can be assured of one thing: a counterattack by the United States.

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PokeStop wrote:
Would you trust a Y-O-B-O in today's society? I say Nuke the North Koreans and rid this world of pollution. Time to clean up that part of the earth.
on April 8,2013 | 08:23AM
loquaciousone wrote:
An unintended consequence of China letting boy blunder on too long a leash is that Japan will once again consider building up it's military.
on April 8,2013 | 08:36AM
HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
China's worse case - Japan decides it needs its own nuclear deterrent. Perhaps that's what Japan needs to do, announce they will be developing their own nuclear weapons unless NK is reeled back in. That would get the Chinese off their butts and put some real pressure on NK. Then again NK could have already gone so far off the deep end they will simply not listen to China either.
on April 8,2013 | 08:37AM
false wrote:
If white walls Kim should even fire a test someone should just knock it out of the sky and tell him it was a test. Seriously, N. Korea will not do anything. Talking big and flying the old BS is their MO. It just not going to happen.
on April 8,2013 | 09:07AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
We need to let South Korea and japan start taking over full responsibility for their defense including the decision for/against development of a nuclear capacity. These are sophisticated, highly evolved nations and we have no reason to be spending our wealth, treasure and lives as big brother. The billions and billions spent there could do much to help grow our own country instead.
on April 8,2013 | 09:10AM
loquaciousone wrote:
I agree and that would make China really really nervous. That's what they get for letting this dungo cross that red line.
on April 8,2013 | 09:55AM
pcman wrote:
IRT Maneki on South Korea and Japan. Actually, keeping US Forces in South Korea and Japan is cheaper than keeping the same force in the US, unless we dicide to eliminate those forces altogether. The host governments actually pay for most of the facilities and bases we use in their country. They also pay for much of the security forces to defend the bases from local threats. We basically pay for US personnel costs and operations and maintenance, which are cheaper there than in th US Primary purpose for our being in the Asian countries is to deter attacks, defend US military forces, civilian business, visitors, government and NGO employees, and Americal interests throughout the Pacific and Asia. If there were none or fewer US focres in the region, it would be nearly impossible for the US to cover US interests on a timely basis from US soil.
on April 8,2013 | 02:45PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Eliminate them. Do we protect Argentina or Brazil? Do we have a massive military presence in Australia? Pick and choose is easy to do...everywhere is strategically important if you want it to be. We should not be the world's cop or the big brother of kids able to fend for themselves. If our interests are the same as those of other countries, we need not worry about them. Our number one interest is the USA and unless they have been sleeping , people recognize that we are a deteriorating nation as our spending goes bonkers and military spending is one of the worst pieces of that profligacy. Cut 'em loose.
on April 8,2013 | 05:09PM
cojef wrote:
The scenario that is currently unfolding on the Korean peninsula indicate the distrust of America global influence by the new and impetuous young dictator Kim Jong Un. Thus, Tokyo is the target of choice for its past occupation of Korea by Japan, and secondarily their defense arrangements with the US. South Korea may be a considered target for the sake unification, but not a priority. This scenario was once, previously played out, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Japan was backed against the wall by England, China and the US by placing emabargoes on oil, coal and steel to fuel their industrial plants which they needed to develop Manchuria. The embargo was the last "straw on the camel's back" and resulted in the infamous attack. Now, too Kim Jong Un feels his back is against the wall for now he is faced with large problem in how to feed the starving masses, especially the young children. A huge dilemma facing the US.
on April 8,2013 | 09:54AM
serious wrote:
Good point, but remember Japan also attacked and occupied China and Korea--I am sure they have long memories. But no fear, OB is out campaigning in Conn.
on April 8,2013 | 10:07AM
rayhawaii wrote:
^>> ^ v ^ v ^ v ^ v ^ v ^ v ! KABOOM thats what will happen when they blow themselves up then blame it on us.
on April 8,2013 | 11:48AM
keawe wrote:
...Tokyo is a city of over Ten Million people and the fallout from a nuclear attack will forever kill the Heart of Japan for the next 75 years. Japan will respond by declaring War on North Korea. Is this what the World wants? Our President should put this current crisis on the top of his "to do" list not on gun control.
on April 8,2013 | 12:03PM
steveoctober wrote:
That's because it's not a crisis. Not in the slightest. North Korea has been playing this game forever. Now more so because some fat kid who got poor grades due to overeating on the kalbi needs to establish himself in front of the elders that he's a hardliner.
on April 8,2013 | 01:18PM
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