Written by Motoko Rich
The North Korean missile that landed in Japanese waters on Wednesday offered another stark reminder of the threat posed to Japan by the kinds of short-range weapons that the North has been testing in recent months.
Yet there are clear limits to what Japan can do about it. The launch reinforced how deeply Japan has been sidelined as President Donald Trump tries to get nuclear talks with North Korea back on track, brushing off Pyongyang’s string of missile tests in the process.
The ballistic missile launched early Wednesday was the first to splash down in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles off its coast, in nearly two years.
North Korea’s official news agency said Thursday that a submarine had fired the missile, corroborating the suspicions of South Korea’s military, which said the missile had been launched from the sea.
It has been three years since North Korea last tested submarine-delivered missiles, which pose a particularly serious challenge because they are harder to detect and extend the range of the North’s arsenal.
The launch recalled another, more provocative test in 2017 in which North Korea fired a missile over Japan’s northernmost main island, prompting the government to send out alarms on cellphones and interrupt television programs to urge residents to take cover.
The latest launch prompted no such warnings. But the test, coming just hours after North Korea announced that it was resuming long-stalled negotiations with the United States, was a clear escalation designed to show both the North’s technical advances and the tough stance it will take in the talks, analysts said.
“They have made clear in the past that they want to see some substantive deal by the end of the year ‘or else,’ ” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “They have not described what that ‘or else’ is, but I would see this launch as a preview of what could happen if they don’t see something in the way of sanctions relief or an interim agreement.”
Japan has said it will install a land-based system, known as Aegis Ashore, that can intercept missiles. But on the diplomatic front, the country has mostly been an afterthought as the United States has engaged with North Korea.
Japanese leaders must walk a fine line as Trump seeks with Pyongyang the sort of major foreign policy victory that has eluded him so far. Japan has little negotiating leverage with North Korea on its own and is mostly relying on assiduous courting of Trump by its prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
The limitations to that approach have been apparent as Trump has been unmoved by Abe’s repeated declarations that Pyongyang’s launching of short- and intermediate-range missiles violates United Nations Security Council resolutions.
“Japan has to consider the complex dynamics that are going on between the U.S. and North Korea right now,” said Kristi Govella, an assistant professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
“President Trump,” she added, “has clearly stated that he does not find these short-range missiles to be troubling, so if Prime Minister Abe chooses to press that very assertively, then he could also end up being blamed for scuttling talks between the U.S. and North Korea or otherwise interfering with U.S. strategy or policy in the region.”
As Trump has held summits with North Korea over the past two years, Japan has feared that he might rush to an impulsive victory under which the North would abandon its development of missiles capable of reaching the continental United States while retaining its arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles that could reach Japan.
“The message since 2018 is that Japan was kind of the punching bag,” said Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, based in Washington.
Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, has made the rounds of world leaders, meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and President Xi Jinping of China multiple times, as well as with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and the leaders of Singapore and Vietnam. But he has pointedly ignored outreach from Abe.
Earlier this year, Abe said he would be willing to meet with Kim without any preconditions. It was a departure from his previous stance that North Korea must first make some progress toward resolving a decadeslong dispute over Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s. So far, Kim has not responded.
Analysts in Japan said that North Korea may be putting pressure on Tokyo because Japanese leaders have insisted on maintaining international sanctions on the North.
“Japan has been very active on cracking down” on violations of those sanctions, said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
Michishita said that North Korea could also be taking advantage of Japan’s hosting of the Summer Olympics next year.
“Between now and the time of the Olympic Games would be the best time for North Korea to negotiate with Japan,” Michishita said. “Japan would be in a relatively weak or vulnerable position, because if North Korea makes a fuss before the Olympic Games, that would put Japan in a very difficult position.”