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Japan in Tumult over Possible Rohdong Missile Test

Posted September. 23, 2004 22:02,   


Yesterday on September 23, the autumn equinox and a Japanese holiday, news that North Korea’s Rohdong (Labor) ballistic missile had been caught in a ready-to-fire state was broadcast every hour over major channels as breaking news. Major newspapers’ websites gave detailed reports on movement at North Korean missile bases and the measures taken by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, quoting the Defense Agency.

The South Korean government said it was likely that they were performing ordinary military exercises, but it appears that the Japanese government believes that an actual missile launch is imminent.

Ever since North Korea made an experimental launch of its Rohdong missile at Japan in 1993, the Japanese government has been responding to North Korea’s missile movements very sensitively. It demanded a freeze in missile launches in addition to a freeze in nuclear experiments as a precondition of the normalization of the relationship between North Korea and Japan at the North Korea-Japan summit meeting in September 2002. These conditions were eventually included in the “Pyongyang Declaration.”

So far, news regarding North Korean missile launch readiness, reported by the Japanese press every once in a while, has been mostly proven to be false. Last March, the Japanese government reported that it had confirmed army personnel and vehicles gathering near a North Korean missile base, but again, there was no missile launch.

Some point out that the Japanese government may be using the “North Korean missile threat theory” as an excuse to increase its military budget. It was able to appropriate funds for a missile defense (MD) system that requires a tremendously large budget, using the logic that it have to prepare itself against North Korea’s missile threats.

Defense Agency Director General Shigeru Ishiba evaluated the Rohdong missile highly in testimony before the National Assembly last year, saying, “If North Korea launches 100 missiles within a 2.5 km radius from their target, 50 missiles will be able to hit what they are aiming at.”

Although North Korea’s real intentions have not been revealed, from inside the Japanese government, there are some predicting with caution that North Korea will not launch missiles this time. A Japanese government official pointed out that there are working-level talks between North Korea and Japan to resolve the incident of kidnapped Japanese, scheduled to be held in Beijing for September 25 and 26. He said, “There is nothing for North Korea to gain by launching missiles now.”

Won-Jae Park parkwj@donga.com