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Japan’s North Korea Options

Will Tokyo Equip Itself for a Preemptive Strike?

A Japanese destroyer in Sagami Bay, southwest of Tokyo, Japan, October 2015. THOMAS PETER / REUTERS

Earlier this month, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles toward Japan. Three of them landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, less than 200 miles from the country’s coast, in an area frequented by Japanese fishing boats. The missile test, North Korean state media claimed, was aimed at “the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan.” By demonstrating that it could carry out a so-called saturation attack—one in which a massive barrage of missiles would overwhelm Japan’s defenses—Pyongyang sought to weaken the credibility of the military deterrent that Japan, the United States, and South Korea have erected against it.

North Korea has conducted dozens of missile tests and three nuclear tests since Kim Jong Un took office in late 2011. Over the same period, Pyongyang’s missile capabilities have grown and its arsenal’s vulnerability to attack has diminished.

Last August, North Korea successfully tested

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