The apparent success of four simultaneous missile launchings by North Korea raised new alarms about the threat to its neighbours and its progress toward developing an ability to overcome their ballistic missile defence systems, including those that have yet to be deployed. According to the South Korean military, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles from its long-range rocket launch site Monday morning. In Japan, analysts said the launches suggested that North Korea could pose a more serious threat than indicated by previous test.
"That would mean a lot in terms of the defence of Tokyo, because North Korea might have been conducting a simulation of a 'saturation attack' in which they launch a number of missiles simultaneously in order to saturate the missile defence that Japan has," said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
"It would be difficult for Japan to shoot down four missiles all at the same time because of our limited missile defence."
The missile tests came three weeks after North Korea tested a missile during a US visit by Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to meet with President Donald Trump.
The launch on Monday happened as the United States and South Korea were conducting their annual joint military exercise. North Korea calls such drills a rehearsal for invasion and has often responded by conducting missile tests.
Japan's coast guard sent out navigation warnings and stepped up air and sea patrols on Monday after three of the missiles landed within the country's so-called exclusive economic zone, where fishing and cargo ships are active. The fourth landed outside it, though nearby.
This was not the first time that North Korean test missiles have fallen within that zone. In both August and September last year, missiles came within 200 km and 250 kms of the Japanese coastline. Monday's missiles landed about 300 to 350 km west of Akita prefecture, on the northern coast of the main island, Honshu. The September launches involved three missiles fired simultaneously, but this time North Korea set off four missiles at once, all of which seemed to land successfully. During a parliamentary committee session on Monday morning, Abe said that the launches "clearly represent a new threat from North Korea."
The missiles took off from Tongchang-ri, in northwestern North Korea, and flew an average of 1000 km before falling into the sea between North Korea and Japan, said Noh Jae-chon, a South Korean military spokesman. The type of missile fired was not immediately clear, but Noh said it was unlikely that they were intercontinental ballistic missiles, which the North had recently threatened to test launch.
In South Korea, the launch prompted South Korean security officials to call for the early deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area defence System, or THAAD, an advanced US antimissile system. China has protested THAAD as a threat to its own nuclear deterrence because its powerful radar would be able to track Chinese missile launches.
Michishita, of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said the missile launches could accelerate a discussion within the Japanese government about whether Japan should acquire more missile defence systems, including THAAD. In January, Japan's defence minister, Tomomi Inada, visited a US Air Force base on Guam for a briefing on THAAD.
After North Korea's missile test last month, Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party formed a committee to discuss the country's ballistic missile defences, and it plans to debate various options, including THAAD, early warning satellites and other defence systems that could intercept incoming missiles.
North Korea's provocations could also embolden Abe in his campaign to raise military spending.
"This can be used by the government as a pretty credible reason why we have to spend more on defence at the expense of other budget items," including social welfare programs, Michishita said.
The Mainichi Shimbun, a newspaper, reported in its evening edition that residents in Akita prefecture, which sits closest to where the missiles landed in the Sea of Japan on Monday, were concerned by the increasing frequency of the tests.
Kazuhiro Asai, director of the Kitaura branch of the Fishermen's Cooperative of Akita Prefecture, told The Mainichi Shimbun that members of the group were frightened by the launches. The newspaper also quoted Kiyokazu Hatakeyama, director of the Kitaura Community Centre, as concerned about a potential decrease in tourists to the area.
New York Times