Trump-Kim rift over nuclear weapons underlines threat to Japan

Just as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's second meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump has exposed his unwillingness to completely give up his country's weapons and production capabilities, Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threat against Japan remains intact.
Even though North Korea has suspended nuclear and missile tests for more than a year -- with Kim promising to continue doing so, according to Trump -- it still deploys several hundred ballistic missiles capable of hitting Japan, possibly with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
While acknowledging the significance of direct engagement between Trump and Kim, the Japanese Defense Ministry said in its latest white paper, "There is no change in our basic recognition concerning the threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles."
Citing a wide gap between Trump and Kim over denuclearization steps -- as evidenced by the abrupt end to the two-day summit through Thursday in Hanoi -- and Pyongyang's perceived goal of winning international recognition as a nuclear state, some security experts are proposing that Japan step up its deterrence and response capabilities.
They suggest Japan acquire strike capability, which some lawmakers of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party also advocate, while others argue Tokyo should increase defense spending beyond a 1 percent cap of such outlays against gross domestic product.
Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation, a U.S. research organization, recommends Japan gain what is also known as "counterattack capability" to undertake retaliatory strikes against an opponent's missile facilities and supporting infrastructure as opposed to first-strike capability.
Hornung said Japan's planned introduction of the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system in fiscal 2023 will help strengthen its missile defense. However, even such an advanced platform is not perfect for interception, especially when North Korea is boosting its ability to launch multiple missiles simultaneously, he noted.
"With a demonstrated nuclear capability, as well as an unknown arsenal of other weapons of mass destruction, Japan fears that any onset of provocations on the (Korean) peninsula could lead to destruction in Japan on a level not seen since August 1945," he said in a report with Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
While the CSIS has identified an estimated 13 undeclared ballistic missile bases in North Korea, another U.S. study shows Pyongyang continued to produce bomb fuel in 2018 despite Kim committing to "complete" denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula during the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit last June in Singapore.
Siegfried Hecker and other Stanford University scholars found that Pyongyang may have produced enough fissile material last year to add up to seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal, which would bring its total number of potential warheads to 35-37.
In Hanoi, Trump pushed Kim to scrap more of North Korea's nuclear facilities and programs including undeclared ones, in addition to the Yongbyon nuclear complex he offered to dismantle in a bid to win full sanctions relief, according to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
"We asked him to do more, and he was unprepared to do that," he told reporters, referring to the North's leader.
Yukio Okamoto, a senior fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also urges Japan to acquire strike capability, saying it is aimed at "deterring North Korea for the second attack, thereby really deterring their first attack as well."
"If Pyongyang launches a chemical-mounted missile targeting Japan, it will explode over North Korea, not Japan," said Okamoto, a former Japanese Foreign Ministry official. "It would be a tremendous fear for North Korea that there may be a nuclear explosion inflicted by Japanese missiles."
Hornung said Japan must ensure that strike capability falls within its exclusively defense-oriented policy because the issue would be politically sensitive not only domestically but to neighboring countries such as China and South Korea.
Including Abe's government, successive Cabinets have been cautious about possessing such capability. It was not included in a new 10-year defense policy guideline the Abe Cabinet adopted in December.
"There's no national consensus," Okamoto said. "But it is an argument worth trying in Japan."
Citing the need to beef up Japan's defense in response to North Korea's threat and other regional challenges such as China's military buildup, Hornung and Green suggested that Japan remove the defense spending cap altogether.
Trump's repeated references to the possibility of withdrawing about 28,500 American troops from South Korea -- citing "very expensive" costs to station the armed forces in the key U.S. ally -- fuel uncertainty for the security of Japan and Northeast Asia, as well.
"While the decision on spending is Japan's alone, given Japan's wealth and its standing as a major global player and U.S. ally, one possible option would be to aim for spending 2 percent of its GDP, the same as that of NATO member states," the Hornung-Green report said, in reference to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Koji Murata, a professor of international politics at Doshisha University in Kyoto, advocated a less ambitious goal, saying Japan should increase the level from 0.9 percent to about 1.2 percent, the same level of Germany's.

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