Japan, U.S., South Korea must work together to boost deterrence

Speculation is growing that North Korea will soon conduct a nuclear test following its repeated ballistic missile launches. Japan, the United States and South Korea must enhance their deterrence by continuing their joint exercises and dialogues.

According to the U.S. and South Korean governments, North Korea has completed preparations for what will be its seventh nuclear test, following the sixth test that was conducted in September 2017.

North Korea announced a freeze on nuclear tests before its 2018 summit with the United States, but it unveiled a policy this year to resume nuclear testing. Pyongyang seems to have been pushing ahead with the development of nuclear weapons, with no intention of abandoning them.

In 2017, North Korea declared that it had completed the development of strategic nuclear weapons, including an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the U.S. mainland. Its next goal is to develop tactical nuclear weapons that will be capable of targeting Japan and South Korea.

Regarding the unusually frequent launches of short- and intermediate-range missiles into the Sea of Japan from late September to early October, Pyongyang said they were exercises by “tactical nuclear operation units.”

Tactical nuclear weapons require the miniaturization of nuclear warheads, and Pyongyang is very likely aiming to develop the technology by conducting its seventh nuclear test. The apparent aim is to increase the nuclear threat to Japan and South Korea and prevent U.S. military intervention.

To contain North Korea’s moves, the alliance between Japan and the United States as well as the one between the United States and South Korea need to be strengthened, and these countries must demonstrate their deterrence and response capabilities in a visible way.

In late October, the U.S. and South Korean militaries began a joint exercise over South Korea involving about 240 aircraft, including state-of-the-art stealth fighters. The move is aimed at confirming procedures for launching a concerted attack on North Korean military bases in the event of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula. U.S. fighter jets from a U.S. base in Japan also are participating in the drill.

It can be said that they are sending a strong warning to North Korea that any provocation will have grave consequences.

The U.S. government’s guidelines for nuclear strategy released in October stressed that it will strengthen a nuclear deterrence system to protect against potential attacks on its allied nations. The United States said it will aim to expand extended deterrence dialogues with Japan, South Korea and other countries.

It is noteworthy that U.S. President Joe Biden has shifted away from long-held positions, such as no first use of nuclear weapons, and expressed a policy to enhance the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

For the first time in seven years, a South Korean naval vessel reportedly will participate in an international fleet review to be held by the Maritime Self-Defense Force in Sagami Bay on Nov. 6. It is hoped that this will be an opportunity to vitalize the stagnant security cooperation between Japan and South Korea.

It is believed that North Korea refrained from nuclear tests during the recent Chinese Communist Party congress out of consideration for Beijing, its strongest backer. Chinese President Xi Jinping established his strong authority at the party congress, so it would be reasonable to assume he could use his influence on North Korea to stop a nuclear test.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 2, 2022)