In an unprecedented announcement on Thursday, North Korea’s state media said the country is developing a plan to simultaneously test-fire four intermediate ballistic missiles into the sea near Guam by mid-August, with a flight plan that would see them fly over Shimane, Hiroshima and Kochi prefectures.
The Hwasong-12 rockets will fly 3,356.7 km for 1,065 seconds and hit the waters 30 to 40 km away from Guam “to signal a crucial warning to the U.S.,” the Korean Central News Agency said.
Guam hosts key U.S. military bases, including Andersen Air Force Base, where B-1B heavy bombers have been deployed to fly over the Korean Peninsula in a demonstration of military power to Pyongyang.
The detailed announcement of a test-firing plan by the North is very unusual, underlining the escalating tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury” if Pyongyang continues to threaten the U.S. by further developing its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
Also on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded in a report dated July 28 that the North has now mastered the technology needed to produce a miniaturized nuclear warhead small enough to be carried on an intercontinental ballistic missile, a key step toward building a credible nuclear deterrent.
On Thursday, top Japanese officials condemned the detailed “provocation” by Pyongyang, calling on the hermit state to fully comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding it stop test-firing ballistic missiles and developing nuclear weapons.
However, the officials also pointed out that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly attempted to tone done the rhetoric, indicating that the U.S. favors negotiations rather than a military solution.
“The Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces are ready to deal with any contingency just in case,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told a Lower House security committee session on Thursday.
“But we are also aware of remarks by Mr. Tillerson, who said (the U.S.) will first try to resolve problems through sanctions and diplomacy,” Onodera said.
On Wednesday, Tillerson made a surprise stop in Guam on his trip from Malaysia to Washington, telling reporters that he believes Trump was simply trying to send a clear message to the North.
“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson said.
He added that he believed the president wanted to state clearly to the North that the U.S. has the ability and will to defend itself and its allies.
Still, it is true the recent verbal jousting between Kim and Trump has raised concerns in Japan, as the country hosts a number of U.S. bases that provide much of the logistical support for U.S. forces in the region and elsewhere.
“This specific threat is more directed at the United States than Japan, but Tokyo should be concerned that this signals an increased willingness to overfly Japanese territory in the future,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
“Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul, should jointly develop a response to this threat and to the launch, should it occur,” he said. “It is not accidental that North Korea threatened to fire a small salvo. U.S. officials could have some confidence that one could be intercepted, but four is a more difficult challenge.”
Under bilateral security arrangements, the Self-Defense Forces, too, would likely be mobilized to provide logistical support for U.S. forces in the event of war in the region.
The pacifist Constitution had long been seen as strictly limiting the SDF’s military operations to the defense of Japanese territory. But in 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet altered the long-standing interpretation of the war-renouncing Article 9, paving the way for the partial use of collective self-defense if the nation’s “survival” was at stake.
Under Abe’s controversial interpretation, the SDF would be allowed to attack a third country assaulting the U.S. military if Japan’s survival was determined to be at stake. The interpretation also said any use of force should be kept to the minimum necessary level.
Asked if the North’s plan would meet those conditions — and if the SDF’s anti-missile defense systems would be allowed to intercept ballistic missiles — Onodera declined to answer the question during Thursday’s Diet session.
He did say, though, if the U.S. ability to protect Japan is feared to be significantly damaged, Japanese Ageis destroyers, equipped with anti-missile SM-3 rockets, might be allowed to attempt to shoot down a North Korean missile, Onodera said.
“You cannot rule out the possibility that (such a situation) might affect the chance of Japan’s survival,” he said.