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2017.07.14

Responsive scenarios against North Korea missile threat -Japan-U.S.-China-ROK cooperation with a view to the future of the East Asian region-

An article published in JBpress on April 17, 2017

  • Kiyoyuki SEGUCHI
  • Research Director
    Kiyoyuki SEGUCHI
  • [Expertise]
    Chinese Economy and Relations among Japan/China and the United States
Confrontation with serious threat anticipated in September last year

Watching television in the morning before work, I have come to notice that the threat of a North Korean missile attack on U.S. military bases in Japan has started to be taken up as a real issue even in variety news programs.

Last September, when I visited the United States on business, a well-known expert on diplomacy said to me that since the possibility of a direct missile attack by North Korea on the Republic of Korea (ROK) or Japan within the next two years cannot be excluded, advance preparations must be made based on such assumption. He indicated that this will likely become one of the top priority issues between the Japanese and U.S. governments from the following year.

I commented on this point in the report delivered immediately after my return to Japan (*1 "Outcome of U.S. presidential election and its influence on TPP and measures against North Korean threats" posted on the Canon Institute for Global Studies website).

On hearing this view for the first time, I admit that I myself only half believed it, but the current situation is exactly as he described it.

U.S. government officials and experts close to the government shared the view that if North Korea should fire a missile directly at Japanese territory, there would be no other choice but to make an immediate counter offensive.

They said that that is where the significance of the Japan-U.S. alliance and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty lies. I felt their determination and commitment in these words, and upon directly hearing them, I felt a sense of relief fraught with tension.

In fact, the timing of Japanese people beginning to realize the threat of missile attack by North Korea was at quite an early stage within the period predicted by the aforementioned diplomatic expert. The reason for the acceleration was the formation of Donald Trump's administration.

Last September, many knowledgeable experts had predicted Hillary Clinton's assumption of the presidency. If the Clinton administration had been formed, and taking into account that the diplomatic course of the Barak Obama administration would have continued, it is likely that the United States would not have chosen to take severe measures against Syria and North Korea at such an early time. Last September, most experts in the United States were not able to make a prediction.

In considering Japan's future countermeasures, it is necessary to prepare for a few scenarios against North Korean threats.

Not being a security expert, I have no choice but to leave the professional opinions to experts on security issues. However, believing that addressing in my mind some of the possibilities that can be thought of at this time would be helpful when learning from the insightful opinions of experts in the future, I have decided to write this report. I would be happy if this basic concept arrangement could be of some use to some of the readers.

*1: For details, please refer to pages 6-7 of the following URL. /column/1601018_seguchi.pdf



In the event Japan's mainland is struck by North Korean missiles

If North Korea should stage a missile attack on U.S. military bases in Japan, it is conceivable that Japan, by exercise of the right to individual self-defense, may expeditiously start striking back at North Korea in collaboration with U.S. forces.

Because a half-hearted strike back would lead to a North Korean secondary attack causing greater damage to Japan, it is important that North Korea's offensive capability be eliminated by the first counterattack.

If the counterattack against North Korea's preemptive missile attack were to be made only by the three countries of Japan, the United States and ROK, the post-war process would be led by these three countries.

This would be unacceptable for China, for it would bring about a situation in which China would have to face a U.S. military threat near at hand without the buffer zone of North Korea, being unable to ward off the presence of U.S. forces in the Korean Peninsula.

In order to avoid such a consequence, China would have no choice but to join in the attack with the three countries of Japan, the United States and ROK, cooperate in controlling North Korea, and assume an important role.

However, even in such a case, China is likely to avoid this scenario, considering the high possibility of Japan and the United States assuming relatively important roles and how the governance of the Korean Peninsula would be carried out in the post-war process.

From the perspective of common sense, it is quite unlikely that North Korea would start a war against the four countries of Japan, the United States, China and ROK. Analogizing from that, I think it also unlikely that North Korea would fire missiles into Japan's mainland. However, since the current North Korea's Kim Jong-un regime is unpredictable in its relationship with the Trump administration, I think the above scenario cannot be completely ruled out.



The option of controlling North Korea under China's leadership before a North Korean missile attack on Japan's mainland

If the United States and China cooperate, and ROK joins in controlling North Korea before a North Korean missile attack to Japan's mainland, Japan's involvement in seeking the direction of stable governance on the Korean Peninsula would become significantly diminished.

In that case, if China assumes the most important role, the post-war process would likely be conducted under the leadership of China. This would probably be also welcomed by the United States, since the risk of getting mired in a war would be averted. It is assumed that this matter was probably discussed at the meeting held in April between President Trump and President Xi Jinping.

If China assumes the leadership in controlling North Korea's threat and realizes the unification of the Korean Peninsula along with ROK, and if U.S. troops stationed in ROK are withdrawn, it would likely be the most reassuring form of post-war process for China.

In this case, without an attack on Japanese territory, the scenario would be desirable also for Japan.

Also for ROK, which is wary of Japan's interference, this scenario would be a desirable option, being able to realize the unification of the Korean Peninsula and denuclearization and assuage concerns that Japan would strengthen its influence on the Korean Peninsula with the United States. Accordingly, the interests of the four countries of Japan, the United States, China and ROK would be satisfied.

Given this, if it should become clear that North Korea would not refrain from conducting a missile attack, the realization of this scenario may become a common target for the four countries concerned.

However, it is considered to be extremely politically difficult for the Chinese leaders to commit to a decision on this option.



Post-war governance on the Korean Peninsula

As long as stabilization of the political and economic situation and denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula are realized, there is no need for Japan to take a strong position of power to interfere in the governance of the Korean Peninsula.

It is important that the three countries of Japan, China and ROK closely cooperate in promoting economic development when setting out to restore stability on the Korean Peninsula and recover the economy and society of the entire Peninsula. The United States is also expected to make some sort of commitment to contributing to the stabilization of the Korean Peninsula.

In that case, the role played by Japan would be very significant. Providing direct support to the North Korean region would of course be necessary, but it would be absolutely essential to maintain the stability of the economic bases of ROK and China that assume a major role in supporting the North Korean region.

Especially, it would become extremely important to strengthen the industrial competitiveness of both China and ROK by having leading Japanese companies increase direct investment to develop industrial infrastructure that would enable the governments of both countries to secure employment and tax revenues.

While Japan could only have a limited role in security aspects due to constitutional restrictions, there are no restrictions limiting its economic cooperation, and it may assume a leading role. In the long term, this role may become extremely important in maintaining economic and social stability in the region.

Since the above scenarios against North Korean threats are only a partial and basic concept arrangement, there may be other scenarios and insights.

The important thing is that if the United States or China takes positive action to eliminate North Korean threats, the countries concerned should share the aforementioned vision for a post-war process before implementing concrete countermeasures.

If the Japanese people are beginning to accept the North Korean threat as a reality, they should also start making efforts to draw up a concrete grand design for the future of the East Asian region from the perspective of the post-war process.

In the process, the Japanese people should take to heart the lessons learned from the past experience of Japanese people suffered racial discrimination in the United States in the first half of 20th century and also the reflections on past experiences of discrimination and damage inflicted by Japanese people themselves on other ethnic groups, and have everyone share the resolution to not make the same mistakes again.

In the world's troubled regions of the Middle East and Africa, Western countries have temporarily restored peace by military intervention, but have failed to realize long-term socio-economic stability, having been unable to avoid a power vacuum.

Restoration of peace by military intervention is effective in the immediate term, but if a power vacuum is created, recovery of stability in such regions would be extremely difficult. To achieve long-term stability in the region, the endogenous formation of development bases, such as the development of basic daily-life infrastructure and industrial bases, and restoration of state governance, is essential.

From this standpoint, it need hardly be said that it is desirable to avoid military intervention in North Korea or keep it to the minimum, and implement policies that will promote sound development of an economic society on a long-term basis.

In Asia today, Myanmar and Cambodia are gradually recovering stability, and this recovery is considered to be mostly as a result of the endogenous formation of development bases on a long-term basis without relying on outside military control.

I hope the North Korean issue will be settled by means that avoid the creation of a power vacuum and turn out to be a successful example of Asian-style dispute settlement.


(This article was translated from the Japanese transcript of Mr. Seguchi's column published by JBpress on April 17, 2017.)

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