Monday, July 10, 2006

The name of the game is escalation

Oh, goody. Japan is considering whether it should launch pre-emptive strikes against North Korean missile sites.

Japan was badly rattled by North Korea's missile tests last week and several government officials openly discussed whether the country ought to take steps to better defend itself, including setting up the legal framework to allow Tokyo to launch a pre-emptive strike against Northern missile sites.

"If we accept that there is no other option to prevent an attack ... there is the view that attacking the launch base of the guided missiles is within the constitutional right of self-defense. We need to deepen discussion," Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said.

Japan's constitution currently bars the use of military force in settling international disputes and prohibits Japan from maintaining a military for warfare. Tokyo has interpreted that to mean it can have armed troops to protect itself, allowing the existence of its 240,000-strong Self-Defense Forces.

A complicating factor is that Japan doesn't have much in the way of weapons to conduct such a strike. But that's not going to deter them if they really, really feel they have to take out the sites.

Japan certainly has a right to feel threatened, and they can plausibly make a case that they are no longer the most dangerous long-term threat in Asia (neither is North Korea; from a military standpoint, neither is going to be able to touch China in the long-term).

But the specter of a remilitarized Japan is a diplomatic nightmare in a region where the U.S. has many strategic interests and where memories of Japanese atrocities are still fresh. And if that remilitarized Japan's first action is a pre-emptive strike, that will go over very poorly in the region.

Which is why South Korea, arguably the other country most threatened by North Korea, told Japan to cool it -- though they withdrew the statement the next day.

"There is no reason to fuss over this from the break of dawn like Japan, but every reason to do the opposite," a statement from President Roh Moo-hyun's office said, suggesting that Tokyo was contributing to tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Abe said Monday it was "regrettable" that South Korea had accused Japan of overreacting.

"There is no mistake that the missile launch ... is a threat to Japan and the region. It is only natural for Japan to take measures of risk management against such a threat," Abe said.

For the sake of regional stability, we should do what we can to resolve the issue without Japan having to take action on its own. Otherwise we risk an escalation of tensions in the region that helps nobody not named Kim Jong-il.

Japan's saber-rattling could have a diplomatic purpose. The Security Council is considering a resolution to impose sanctions on North Korea. In an acknowledgement of the limited effect such sanctions would have, they've delayed the vote in order to give China time to convince North Korea to give up missile tests and return to the six-party talks they walked away from in November. But Japan could be trying to put pressure on the UN to take action of some sort and not just let the issue die.

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