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Japan’s assertiveness: Why is Seoul acting surprised?

July 16,2006
[First of two articles] After North Korea test-fired seven missiles on July 5, tensions in Northeast Asia rose instantly and there was universal condemnation by the Stalinist state’s neighbors about Pyongyang’s “provocation.”
Japan reacted the most sensitively, perhaps because of the reminder of the shock there in 1998 when North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 missile over Japanese heads and into the Pacific Ocean.
An official reaction was not long in coming, and it was a tough one. Tokyo’s foreign minister, defense leader and chief cabinet secretary spoke separately about the need to re-examine the country’s peace constitution to see if it would permit a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s missile bases if there were no other option to head off a feared attack.
The officials cautioned that such a step would be a last resort, to be used only if it was clear that Pyongyang was aiming its missiles at Japanese targets.
In Seoul, the suggestions set off a firestorm of protest. The Blue House criticized what it called “this display of Japan’s inclination to aggression,” and said it would regard that Japanese thinking as a threat not only to North Korea but to the Korean Peninsula. Blood, indeed, is thicker than water.
There was also an outraged reaction in the media here, although it seemed to include an element of amnesia about just why North Korea’s bellicosity was a threat to the whole region. The reason, clearly, is that it could set off an arms race in a part of the world where no one seems to love his neighbor very much, and a prime candidate for rearming would be Japan, whose post-World War II constitution forswears the use of military power.
But the Korean media, picking up on the Blue House line, accused Tokyo of trying to use the North’s missile threat as a lever to justify its pre-existing plans for a military build-up.
The Dong-A Ilbo, for example, published an article on July 14 headlined, “Japan, no longer a country that ‘cannot participate in a war.’” The newspaper quoted analysts as saying that Japan was turning rapidly to the right, and had the ability to become a nuclear power any time it chose.
Yonhap News Agency carried a similar story two days earlier, accusing Japan of stepping up its military procurement and expansion using North Korea as a pretext. “Japan’s military reinforcement and efforts to become a military superpower have created a dark cloud over the security of Northeast Asia, and the change has been taking concrete shape in proportion to the seriousness of the North’s missile and nuclear issue,” the news agency said.
Is Japan really ready to declare itself a “normal country” with military strength to match its economic prowess? Is North Korea playing into Japanese hands by its saber-rattling?
The general consensus among analysts here and in other countries is that Japan’s military is already well above that of the average nation, with particularly sophisticated air and naval power. They note that although the Japan Self Defense Forces have only 250,000 men under arms, perhaps only a quarter of North Korea’s forces and less than half those of South Korea, they make up for that lack of numbers with advanced weaponry. They note that Japan’s military budget, consistently one of the world’s five largest, allows Japan to continue to upgrade and maintain that military punch.
According to a report last month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. institute, Tokyo’s military expenditures last year were $44.7 billion, the second-highest in Asia. China spent $80 billion on defense that year. The third-largest defense budget in Asia was India’s $22 billion.
From 1999 to 2002, Japan spent about $40 billion per year on its military; it had the largest military budget in the region until 2001, when China’s booming economy allowed it to increase its defense spending dramatically. The center says of the Japanese military’s standing in the region, “Japan is reasserting its strategic role in the region, causing tension with both China and South Korea.”
The Japan Air Self Defense Force has more than 200 F-15J fighter jets, a number exceeded only by the U.S. inventory of those aircraft, and has 13 E-2C early warning and air control aircraft. The maritime forces have four Kongo-class destroyers that use the U.S. Aegis system, an advanced fleet combat control system.
“Japan has focused its efforts on upgrading its air force and navy for the past decade,” said Kim Hyun-gi, a defense analyst at Hanyang University. “Except for the absence of an aircraft carrier, its navy is very strong.”
A researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis who asked not to be named said that for the last 15 years, Japan has increased its spending on naval forces, allocating more than 20 percent of its defense budget for that purpose. “This has increased Japan’s ability to project its military power beyond its conventional sea border. Depending on your interpretation, this could be seen as an attempt by Japan to become a more offense-oriented force,” the researcher said.
But despite the sophistication of Japan’s weaponry, analysts doubt that the nation has the capability of launching a pre-emptive strike on North Korea despite calls by political and administration leaders to keep the option open.
Those analysts say constitutional barriers are not so easily overcome, and that in any case the Self Defense Forces lack the intermediate-range or cruise missiles that would be necessary for an unmanned attack. Sending in war aircraft would require refueling assistance from the United States, they said.


by Ser Myo-ja, Brian Lee


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