By Patrick Goodenough
CNSNews.com Pacific Rim Bureau Chief
February 17, 2003
Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) – Japan’s blunt warning that it could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea in the face of an imminent missile launch has won support from Australia.
“The right to self-defend in the light of imminent attack is legitimate,” Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill said in a television panel discussion Sunday.
According to the transcript released by the defense ministry, Hill noted that Japan was located “very close” to North Korea and well within range of missiles in Pyongyang’s possession.
Its stance was therefore understandable, he said.
In a widely-distributed wire interview late last week, Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba warned Tokyo could adopt a first-strike policy against North Korea.
The reclusive communist state has moved to restart a frozen nuclear program, and warned recently that it may also resume missile tests.
Last Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker raised the subject in remarks to a regional security forum in Tokyo.
“We hear reports that they may engage in a missile test, perhaps overflying the island of Japan,” Baker said of the North Koreans, but gave no indication of when such a launch could take place.
The last time Pyongyang tested a ballistic missile, it horrified the Japanese by sending a Taepo-Dong-1 rocket clear across northeastern Japan in 1998 before it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
The South Korean government says the North is currently developing an even longer-range (4-6,000 km) Taepo-Dong-2 missile, and also has scores of shorter-range (1,500 km) Ro-Dong missiles in service.
Ishiba’s comments produced a stir because Japan’s military options are severely restricted by its pacifist constitution.
After World War II ended in defeat for imperial Japan, the U.S. imposed a constitution that renounces the “threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”
But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been edging Japan toward a less passive stance, most clearly seen in the passage in late 2001 of a bill allowing Tokyo to contribute to the post-Sept. 11 campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan.
In his warning last week, Ishiba said a pre-emptive strike against North Korea would not breach the post-war constitution.
“Our nation will use military force as a self-defense measure if North Korea starts to resort to arms against Japan,” he said.
Ishiba stressed there was no confirmation of an imminent North Korean missile launch.
The heightening of regional tensions comes amid an ongoing crisis over North Korea’s decision to abandon bilateral and global agreements and restart mothballed nuclear facilities.
The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog last Wednesday referred Pyongyang’s actions to the Security Council, although key members are not pushing for sanctions against the bankrupt nation.
Along with South Korea, Japan is the country considered most under threat from potential North Korean aggression.
Also at risk are American forces in the region. The U.S. has 45,000 troops stationed in Japan, and another 37,000 in South Korea.
A Japanese financial daily reported Monday that the U.S. and Japan plan to hold two years of joint trials of a ballistic missile interception system, beginning in Hawaii in April 2004.
Ishiba recently told lawmakers in Tokyo that Japan was currently unable to shoot down a North Korean missile.