- Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
- Tokyo Correspondent, BBC News
It was a confusing and nervous morning for the people of northern Japan.
At 07:50 local time, air raid alerts were sounded in Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, and television programs were interrupted to tell people to evacuate. The Japanese Coast Guard reported that a missile fired from North Korea was headed toward Japan. North Korean missiles have passed over Japan before – one did so last month – but never this far south.
But the missile launched this morning did not enter Japanese airspace. According to South Korean military sources, the missile failed mid-flight and crashed, plunging into the Sea of Japan.
Please everyone calm down and go back to your morning coffee. Well, no.
First of all, firing ballistic missiles at your neighbors without warning, leaving them to guess where they will land, is not normal behavior.
It is an extremely provocative and dangerous act, completely outside the norms of international behavior. It is a threat to aviation and shipping. If the projectiles break, debris can fall on those below.
Second, this comes a day after North Korea launched a record number of missiles into the sea off the coast of South Korea.
In addition, the action comes just days before key midterm elections in the United States, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hopes the display of his military prowess will focus attention on the US capital.
¿QWhat does Pyongyang want?
North Korea is deliberately raising tensions with its neighbors. Analysts believe that is getting ready for something biggerlike a nuclear test or a full-scale long-range ballistic missile test in the Pacific, or both.
All this noise has a political goal. It’s a pattern Pyongyang used in 2010 and again in 2017. First, escalate tensions to a frightening level, and then he asks for compromise and concessions from South Korea, Japan and the United States. Pyongyang is almost certainly doing the same now.
But Kim Jong-un has another goal. North Korea is still far from perfecting its missile technology.
After the missile is launched into space, the warhead detaches and returns to Earth in a “re-entry vehicle”. This must be able to withstand the tremendous heat and pressure created by immersion in the atmosphere.
In previous tests, North Korean craft returning to the country appear to have failed. Therefore, Pyongyang needs to continue testing to perfect its technology.
This Thursday’s test seems to have passed in the so-called a “elevated trajectory”, flying high in space, about 2000 km, and then suddenly descends again. This may have been done to test a long-range, no-fly missile over Japan. If today’s test was another failure, it only shows how much Pyongyang still has to do.
But the ultimate goal is not only to threaten South Korea and Japan. North Korea can already do that.
It is a threat to the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Today’s test will certainly shock those who have heard the sound of sirens.
But if North Korea’s intention is to intimidate Japan, it has the opposite effect. Pyongyang’s missile tests, along with China’s recent threats to Taiwan, have a profound impact on Japanese politics. For decades, the Japanese right-wing has called for the abolition of the post-war pacifist constitution and rearmament of the country.
Until now, most ordinary Japanese have said no.
But that is changing and now security officials have all the justification they need to continue. Next month the government will propose doubling the defense budget over the next decade and the acquisition of long-range strike weapons.
Reports indicate that Japan is in talks to buy hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States. This would mean that Japan would have the ability to attack targets inside China and North Korea for the first time since World War II.
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