Threat of tactical nuclear weapons cannot be left unchecked

North Korea has repeatedly test-fired ballistic missiles that are difficult to intercept with existing defense systems. Japan, the United States and South Korea must work together to hasten the development of capabilities to respond to such new threats.

North Korea launched ballistic missiles toward the Sea of Japan on Thursday night.

Pyongyang also fired ballistic missiles on Sunday and Wednesday that are believed to have flown on irregular trajectories and at altitudes lower than that of conventional missiles.

Analysis indicates the missile fired Sunday was an improved version of a Russian-made model. If such missiles are equipped with small nuclear warheads, they could be used as tactical nuclear weapons against South Korea and other countries.

North Korea has launched more than 30 missiles this year, already a record annual high. Short-range ballistic missiles have been used in most of the launches, many flying at low altitudes and on irregular trajectories, making it possible for them to evade radar or other missile defense systems. Pyongyang has also concealed missile launch sites and enhanced its capabilities to carry out surprise attacks with short launch preparation times.

The series of missile launches can be seen as proof that North Korea is focusing not only on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can reach the U.S. mainland, but also on the development of tactical nuclear weapons.

Technology to miniaturize nuclear warheads is required to develop tactical nuclear weapons. This might explain why North Korea has made efforts to resume operations at a nuclear test site it claimed it had abandoned. Amid the threat of a seventh nuclear test, vigilance is required.

To deal with the growing nuclear threat, the Japan-U.S. and U.S.-South Korea alliances must be strengthened, and the defense capabilities of Japan and South Korea must be reinforced.

During a trip to South Korea on Thursday, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited the demilitarized zone, located along the military demarcation line with North Korea, demonstrating Washington’s firm commitment to defending South Korea. In waters off South Korea, the United States and South Korea conducted a joint military exercise for the first time in about five years, and a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was among the vessels used in the drill.

The accumulation of such experience will enhance deterrent capabilities.

South Korea is strengthening capabilities in three areas to respond in the event that an actual or imminent North Korean missile launch is detected: preemptive strikes, its own missile interception, and retaliatory strikes. Japan also urgently needs to possess counterstrike capabilities to destroy enemy missile bases and other targets in the event of a North Korean attack.

For that purpose, concrete steps must be taken immediately to establish a cooperation framework with the U.S. military, such as considering what kind of missiles are needed and how information should be gathered to identify counterstrike targets.

North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear and missile programs in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, with the backing of UNSC permanent members China and Russia. If this situation is left unchecked, the global nuclear nonproliferation system could collapse.

On such occasions as the U.N. General Assembly, Japan, the United States and South Korea need to work with European countries to emphasize the importance of the international community as a whole suppressing North Korean threats.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 30, 2022)