North Korea: Dispelling the Fear of Nuclear Threat For Japan

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Photo by Al83tito

In the past months, North Korea has launched two missiles over northern Japan. These launches have brought with them a host of fear mongering, apocalyptic rhetoric and condemnation from across the world. Yet, the effect on everyday life here in Tokyo among foreigners and Japanese alike remains minimal, and it’s mostly business as usual. Even so, on-going events worldwide have raised the question, “Is this the beginning of the end?” However, when it comes to the NK, we’ve been asking ourselves that question for a long time.

So, why the fear?

U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t helping matters much.

Earlier this year, North Korea ramped up its missile programs and nuclear tests.

In recent months, the country has claimed that they have not only learned to build, but also miniaturize a hydrogen bomb (capable of fitting on one of their new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)), as well as develop a system capable of delivering it.

Its missile and artillery program holds much of South Korea (especially Seoul, its capital city) hostage, and its rhetoric constantly plagues the political motivations and actions of many leaders within Asia.

The status of North Korea has only been kept alive due to its long-lasting, although recently wavering ally: China. For all intents and purposes, North Korea is now a nuclear-armed country with nothing to lose.

There are multiple studies which show how possessing nuclear weapons actually makes a nation less safe.

To make matters worse, U.S. President Donald Trump has been wading into the quagmire of Asian politics with all the finesse of a wrecking ball and has only caused more issues. His own discourse of brinkmanship, and sabre-rattling threats have led to tensions rising at an alarming rate. This was recently demonstrated beautifully in Trump’s first speech to the UN, where instead of advocating for peace and cooler heads prevailing, he called Kim Jong-un, “Rocket Man”, and declared that the United States may “have no choice but to completely destroy North Korea.” His threats of war echo those of North Korea’s, and his unpredictable nature begs the question if he is prepared to handle the delicate situation, or is simply adding fuel to the fire.

Remembering the past

North Korea does not have a very clean track record. Earlier this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un demonstrated the reach of his power by reportedly killing his own brother. Also, rockets which experts believed to simply be a pipedream suddenly became a stark reality.

In 2010, North Korea launched an artillery bombardment on the small island of Yeonpyeong. Although the casualties on both sides were minimum, it was a painful reminder that the war had not ended.

The reason I mention these instances is to set up the future. Just because nothing has happened in the past, it does not mean the possibility of a war in the future is vindicated. Yet, the reality is far from this.

Dispelling the fear

Photo by Chris 73

North Korea sent a missile over Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan, on Aug. 29, 2017.

To understand why this is predictably a case of fear mongering and brinkmanship, we must first understand why North Korea acts this way.

North Korea has not been launching these missiles to goad nations into attacking them. The primary reason (beyond a technical test and show of force) is, oddly enough, the complete opposite.

North Korea does this to deter military actions against them. Having a nuclear weapon is as much a deterrent as it is a threat, and it allows nations to have a seat at the table, whilst adding greater impact to their words. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, and North Korea is unlikely to withstand any kind of invasion themselves. To them, they are surrounded. A single tentative ally keeps them in power, whilst enemies and far-flung giants patrol their borders.

Now that North Korea has crashed into the nuclear-military club (uninvited), the same rules of nuclear ownership apply to them.

Now that North Korea has crashed into the nuclear-military club (uninvited), the same rules of nuclear ownership apply to them.

Since the end of World War II, nations have used nuclear missiles as a propagator for peace, not a weapon. Mutually assured destruction (aptly named, MAD), is a principle that states: If you are to use nuclear weapons, you are mutually assured to destroy yourself in the process (through retaliation).

North Korea is not idiotic. Its leadership, despite years of multiple sanctions, supposed coup attempts and very few political allies, has managed to stay in power. They are fully aware that any strike they initiate will spell the end for them. The presence of the missile is the real power in this equation.

Beyond this, the missiles being fired right now are not weaponized. It’s one thing being able to reach your target; it’s another for your missile to hit it accurately and not be shot down in the process. This is something Japan, South Korea and the United States military in the region have all become very good at.

A recent assumption, thanks to the words of Trump, is that Japan should be given nuclear weapons themselves — there are multiple studies which show how possessing nuclear weapons actually makes a nation less safe. However, even Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, despite his recent attempts to re-militarize the Japanese constitution, is not willing to bear the political cost that nuclear weapons would bring.

The end is not nigh

The reality is that North Korea is far more interested in using the threat of nuclear weapons, than the actual use of nuclear weapons. Their technological reach and power are limited, and the checks and balances applied to every nuclear armed nation, if they are at all miniaturized and ready-to-fire, still apply to Pyongyang.

For the time being, life in Japan is unlikely to change. Residents living up north may be woken by a few more alarms and those of us in other parts of the country will hear a few more scary news reports — we’re unlikely to see much change to our everyday lives, even if things start to heat up. Although it might be fun, in a morbid kind of way, to imagine that this will be the spark which starts the next world war, it is much more likely to continue the way it has been for years: a war of words.

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British teacher, Japan explorer and writer. I will exchange witty jokes for Marmite.

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