On Tuesday morning (local time), North Korea fired a missile that flew over Japan, an intermediate range ballistic missile known as a Hwasong-12, the same type the country threatened to fire at Guam earlier this month. Air raid sirens and emergency broadcasts blared from speakers across Japanese cities warning that a missile was tracking toward north-central Japan.
The Hwasong-12 flew over the northern island of Hokkaido before landing in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 1,700 miles from its launch point near the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe spoke to President Trump for 40 minutes to discuss the most recent provocative action by North Korea, more formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Prime Minister Abe said the event was a “reckless action” and an “unprecedented, serious and grave threat.”
While overflying Japan with a ballistic missile was a first, it is not the only time North Korea has fired rockets over its neighbor to the east. In 1998, 2009, 2012 and 2016 the DPRK flew rockets over Japan, claiming the launches were for placing satellites into orbit. There is no doubt the rocket launches were early precursors to today’s ballistic missile tests, and no such claim about putting a satellite into orbit was made after Tuesday’s launch.
The YouTube video below was just released by North Korea and shows the missile launch from multiple angles.
According to the DPRK’s official news agency, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim Jung Un called Tuesday morning’s launch “a meaningful prelude to containing Guam” and promised to use the Pacific for future missile drills. Kim attended the launch and used the opportunity to slam the joint South Korean and American military exercise that is currently underway.
Exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian 2017 began the day before the Hwasong-12 launch and is an annual training event. The 10-day exercise is scheduled to conclude on August 31 and is mostly a computer-simulated defensive exercise to enhance combat readiness across South Korea. As with any exercise involving South Korea, the North has reacted with test launches of missiles and bellicose words combined with the assertion that the exercise is nothing more than a rehearsal to invade North Korea.
The response from the Trump White House came in the form of a written statement that was short and filled with much of the same canned responses to previous North Korean belligerence. The statement in full read: “The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior. Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region among all the nations of the world. All options are on the table.”
While the response falls well short of the “fire and fury” comments Trump made earlier this month, the comments echo that of every previous administration since North Korea and the United States concluded the Agreed Framework in 1994. The deal was meant to stop the DPRK’s nuclear development in exchange for fuel oil deliveries, but the country never intended to keep its end of the bargain and has been able to develop a significant rocket force despite decades of sanctions and four American administrations.
South Korea conducted a practice strike with F-15K Slam Eagles as a response to the missile launch. Four of the F-15Ks conducted a live airstrike on the Pilseung Range in eastern South Korea describing the mission as one that could be aimed at North Korea’s leadership. According to the Yonhap, Maj. Lee Kuk-no, who led the mission said afterwards, “Our Air Force will wipe out the leadership of the North Korean regime with the strong strike capability if it threatens the security of our people and the South Korea-U.S. alliance with nuclear weapons and missiles.” Additionally, South Korea’s military released a short video of its own ballistic missile, the Hyunmoo-2B, being tested. While the tests of the South Korean weapons were conducted last week, the videos were released following Tuesday’s DPRK launch.
While the missile did fly over Japan, it is very likely that the missile test was not designed to signal Japan that it is now higher on the DPRK’s target list. It has more to do with geography than anything else. North Korea needs to accurately test its missiles to obtain a full measure of their capability and firing them over Japan is the most obvious choice.
Previously, North Korea has conducted its missile tests to avoid overflying Japan or any other nation. To do this, the DPRK has used a highly lofted launch angle where the missile reaches higher altitudes but travels a much shorter distance. With China to its west, Russian to its north, South Korea to its south the DPRK does not have many options to test its missiles to full capacity. Most options involve overflying Japan. North Korea has conducted approximately 80 missile tests since Kim Jung Un came to power in 2011 and this test was the most provocative by far, though by firing over Japan the decision was made to not fire toward Guam and risk even further escalating the situation. Guam is 2,110 miles from North Korea, farther than the Hwasong-12 travelled Tuesday, but the South Korean military believes that missile was not fired at its maximum range.
There is no doubt Japan is a target for North Korea should war break out on the Korean Peninsula. Japan hosts many American military bases that would be utilized in the event of war and the DPRK would look to neutralize those facilities or at least scare the Japanese sufficiently to deny the Americans the use of the bases.
Japanese Ballistic Missile Defense Capabilities
Currently, the Japanese have several layers that could potentially defeat an incoming ballistic missile. The Japanese defenses consist of the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile defense and Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) aboard six destroyers. Japan is also considering accelerating plans to install a land-based BMD facility called Aegis Ashore.
The PAC-3 weapons system is a land-based mobile system with the capability to engage aircraft, cruise missiles and tactical ballistic missiles. A tactical ballistic missile will have a range of approximately 200 miles and is not the same type of weapon as a short range ballistic missile (SRBM). The PAC-3 has been called the most mature part of the integrated BMD network due to its length of use and success in testing and combat in Iraq. With a range of only 12 miles, the PAC-3 is used as a point defense weapon, protecting cities and military facilities, using its hit-to-kill design to intercept tactical and some short range ballistic missiles in the terminal phase before impact. In a response to North Korea’s earlier threat to fire missiles over Japan towards Guam, the Japanese military had deployed PAC-3 missile batteries along the most likely flight path of the DPRK missiles. Hours after the missile passed over Japan, the Japanese air force demonstrated a quick deployment of the PAC-3 by rolling a convoy into Yokota Air Base and setting the system up in front of reporters.
Like the American Navy, Japan has incorporated BMD technology into its fleet of Aegis-equipped warships. Currently Japan has six Aegis-equipped destroyers, four of which are capable of some form of missile defense. The four ships belong to the Kongō-class and are very similar to the American Arleigh Burke class of destroyers. Two newer ships of the Atago-class are being upgraded to BMD capable and two additional ships will be built with the anti-missile capability.
Japan has also been requesting permission to purchase two Aegis Ashore facilities, that use the same type of radars and missiles that Aegis ships do, but rather than being at sea the radar and missiles are land-based. Aegis Ashore is already in use in Romania and will be operational in Poland next year. According to Reuters, Japan is worried that the system it receives will not be the most powerful version of the Aegis system with an older radar that lacks the detection range of the newest version.
North Korea continues to push for attention and threaten its neighbors daily. The South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Abe spoke by phone to discuss options and a response to the DPRK. The two leaders decided to increase pressure on North Korea to an “extreme level” while continuing to pursue stronger and more restrictive sanctions through the United Nations Security Council, which held an emergency meeting Tuesday.
This situation is not going away, and, now that North Korea has realized that it can test its missiles over Japan, the pattern is sure to continue. September 9 is called the Day of the Foundation of the Republic, celebrating the official founding of North Korea in 1948. According to The New York Times South Korean intelligence has warned that the DPRK is ready to conduct another nuclear test, which would be the nation’s sixth. The last nuclear test occurred last year on that date. Or perhaps North Korea will fly another missile over Japan, further testing its weapons and hopefully securing a stronger negotiation position should the diplomats come to their senses. As of now, North Korea continues to hold much of east Asia hostage, all the while demanding the world pay attention to it.