When news broke on March 8 that U.S. President Donald Trump had agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had plenty of reason to worry. Japan, of course, would be delighted if the Trump-Kim meeting were to put Pyongyang on the path to verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, but Japanese leaders have long been and will continue to be concerned about the arsenal of North Korean missiles that could reach them. From Tokyo’s perspective, the problem on the Korean Peninsula is not simply that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities are growing; it is also that Kim blatantly desires to demonstrate those capabilities, and to do so at the expense of Japanese security. North Korea has a reputation of not abiding by agreements, and today it has a lethal military arsenal to show for it. Thus, even if Trump and Kim hash out a deal, there is little reason for Abe to believe that Kim will give up his nuclear and missile capabilities, given how hard he has worked to develop them up to now. Expect Japan to be very skeptical, and to demand sustained evidence of Kim’s intentions. Like U.S. and South Korean experts, Tokyo policymakers have little reason to trust Kim’s quick about-face.
Japan has felt the brunt of Kim’s intensified missile testing for over a year. Of North Korea’s 11 successful missile launches in 2017, five fell within 200 nautical miles of the Japanese islands. In late August, Kim sent the first of two intermediate-range ballistic missiles he claimed could eventually reach the United States. In September, he went further and conducted a nuclear test, again seeking to prove that North Korea was just about to reach its goal of a deliverable nuclear weapon—a threat severe enough that it could decouple Seoul and Tokyo from the United States.
Japan has long worried about North Korea’s missile program. In 1998, the first launch of a North
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