Consider The THAAD: How An Armed Japan Could Help Tame North Korea
PHOTO (above): Handout by the South Korean Defense Ministry shows a U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber (L) fly with a South Korean fighter over the Korean Peninsula aimed to counter North Korea’s missile test on July 30. (South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)
When North Korea tested its latest, perhaps intercontinental, missile on July 30, Japan’s Shinzo Abe rushed to phone U.S. President Donald Trump. Both leaders, Abe told reporters, agreed to “take further action” and “make every possible effort to protect our citizens,” as Kim Jong-un races after a nuclear deterrent.
If only he’d called South Korea’s Moon Jae-in instead. After all, where have sanctions, bluster and threats of arms races gotten Japan’s prime minister or his predecessors? Nor have same-old, same-old efforts to prod China into taming Pyongyang worked. Enter Moon, the newish leader to the South, looking to try something no one has in a decade: talk to Kim to de-escalate tensions. Could it really hurt?
It’s time Abe reversed course, too, in a way sure to shock both Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping: follow Seoul’s lead and build a web of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems around his geopolitically vital nation.
First, Abe should talk Trump off the attack-Pyongyang ledge. Trump inched out there on January 2 when he tweeted that Kim testing an ICBM “won’t happen.” When Kim did just that on July 4, Trump’s team called for “global action.” Last week, Trump took aim at Xi, too, complaining “I am very disappointed in China,” which he earlier urged to “put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
What would be nonsense would be a pre-emptive military strike, which could troll Kim into firing a nuclear warhead Japan’s way. With scandals mounting and the Russia probe expanding, Trump is desperate to change the narrative. The highlight of his chaotic presidency came April 6, when the U.S. fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria. Trump may want to relive that high.
That would put Japanese citizens directly in harm’s way when Kim retaliates. Hitting Seoul, just 121 miles (195 kilometers) away from Pyongyang, would be suicidal. Seattle, too risky for an ICBM program that’s a work in progress. Japan, a vital U.S. ally with tens of thousands of American troops, is the obvious target.
Abe has the power to change the narrative. When you consider Xi’s own tantrum over South Korea hosting U.S. missile defenses — banning tourism, rejecting visas for pop stars, closing Lotte stores — imagine his freakout should arch rival Japan follow suit. Few moves hold greater promise of eliciting the “heavy move” Trump desires. THAAD wouldn’t just shoot down weapons — including Beijing’s — but put more U.S. radar and surveillance power in Xi’s backyard. The mere threat of THAAD installations in Japan — or the Aegis Ashore weapons-interception system — might bring clarity to Xi’s thoughts on the need to rein in China’s client state.
Xi can hardly snap Kim to attention. John Delury of Seoul’s Yonsei University has a point when he says it’s “roughly as easy for China to solve this problem as for U.S. to bring peace to Middle East and make Israel give up its nuclear weapons.” But so do Trump and Abe when they argue Beijing isn’t using its considerable leverage. According to South Korea’s central bank, North Korea’s economy grew at its fastest pace in 17 years in 2016 – 3.9% — even as the trade noose supposedly tightened. Since Trump entered the White House, China-North Korea trade grew more than 10%. Far from docking Kim’s allowance, Xi has looked the other way as border-town Chinese factories help Kim elude United Nations sanctions.
Sanctions on Chinese firms
Trump is pushing for stronger so-called secondary sanctions on Chinese companies that run pro-Kim factories. Diplomacy, as Michael Morell, former deputy director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency puts it, won’t get the job done. “We’ve been at that for 25 years,” he said recently. Even so, says Andrei Lankov of Seoul’s Kookmin University, there’s zero chance Kim will give up his nuclear arsenal, lest he loses deterrence against regime change. As world leaders scramble, Lankov says, it’s “business as usual” for Kim Inc.
But few steps would upend the status quo faster than Abe reducing the offensive capabilities of both Pyongyang and Beijing. While Japan already has a two-step missile defense system, Kim’s ICBM advances — and the U.S. detecting “highly unusual” submarine activity — call for reinforcements.
Tokyo has demurred for fear of alienating Asia’s biggest economy. As Kim lashes out and Trump threatens to hit back, though, the lost-gross-domestic-product argument is losing potency. Prodding Xi to step up would serve two other Abe goals. One is carving out a bigger role in global affairs. At the root of Abe’s obsession with revising the pacifist post-war constitution so that Japan can deploy troops abroad is projecting strength. Playing a pivotal role in de-escalating tensions would enhance Tokyo’s stakeholder street cred.
The second is legacy. With approval ratings lower than Trump’s (26% for Abe’s cabinet), wages stagnant and deflation a persistent feature of Asia’s No. 2 economy, decisive action beyond Japan’s borders could be just the thing to bolster Abe’s standing in posterity.
The key is trying something different. Moon’s push to restart the 1998-2008 “Sunshine Policy” of détente on the Korean peninsula is worth a try. But as Seoul serves up the carrots, Abe could wield a stick that knocks Xi out of his comfort zone and nudges Beijing to try a different tack on Pyongyang.
Follow Pesek on Twitter: @williampesek. The views expressed here are the author’s own.