North Korea’s test firing of an intercontinental missile demonstrates the urgency in forging tighter ties n between Washington and Tokyo along with Seoul in improving all defenses and underscores the importance of pulling Beijing off the sidelines to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, four recently retired U.S. and Japanese officers agreed Friday.
Speaking Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, former director National Intelligence and the top military officer in the Pacific, said in answer to a question, “We are already exposed” to North Korean missile attack, even using conventional weapons, by the United States’ presence on the peninsula and having naval, ground and air forces stationed in Japan.
But he reminded the Washington, D.C., think tank audience, “It is much better to have your forces up there if trouble starts.” Blair added, “Our forces will not be caught in their hangars or at the piers” as they were at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines in 1941.
“The coin of the realm [in deterrence in the Pacific where distances are great and time crucial] are forces there.”
At the Pentagon later Friday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, said the North Korean missile’s flight posed no threat to the United States and its range was estimated to be 620 miles, ending in splash-down in the Sea of Japan. He added the United States remains prepared to defend itself and its allies from any provocation or attack.
Speaking at CSIS as the Pentagon and other federal agencies begin assessing the latest launch, “We’re not going anywhere,” Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Chief of Naval Operations, added. “I want my best forces there [in Korea and Japan] . …They are our best forces” and “are integrated with Japan [and South Korea.”
Retired Gen. Ryoichi Orikii, former Chief of Staff of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, believes in light of Pyongyang’s continued work on fitting nuclear weapons on top of its missiles and test firings, “We are in the preparatory, planning phase of what kind of pressure we need” to apply to North Korea. For both nation’s forces, that means clear definitions of each nation’s roles and responsibilities in a crisis.
Looking at the broader picture in the Pacific and in northeast Asia, Retired Gen. Shigeru Iwasaki, who succeeded Oriki, said, “We [Japan] are taking a weaker position” if the United States pulls back its forces from the region. Joint training and joint exercises are crucial to better communication and understanding and those measures also allow for necessary technology transfers to meet new threats from North Korea and to deter China’s territorial assertiveness in the East and South China’s Seas.
When looking at the growing threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea, Mullen said, “There really are no good options here.” He noted the extraordinarily large number of missile and nuclear tests the regime has conducted under Kim Jong-un compared to his father and grandfather and “the number of people he has eliminated in his regime” to stay in power.
Mullen cited President Donald Trump’s and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford’s statements that the United States intends to “pressure [Kim] as hard as we can” as one path being that is now being pursued.
The second path is “through China.” He said, “Beijing shouldn’t get a frees pass” when it comes to curbing Pyongyang. A key to having China become more active is determining what its interests are in allowing North Korea to continue behaving as it has been doing. Another reality if China, as well as Russia, South Korea and Japan would feel an immediate and large impact if Kim’s regime collapsed either from internal pressures or was toppled militarily, starting with a huge flow of refugees across their borders.
The stakes are high economically as well and not solely in northeast Asia. “Four of the five biggest economies in the world are out there.” Any outbreak of fighting on the peninsula or a pre-emptive strike from Pyongyang on Japan, the United States of its possessions that would meet with an overwhelming military response “would have a huge economic effect globally,” Mullen said.
As for negotiations, Blair remained very skeptical of new talks with the North Koreans. “Their record for negotiations in good faith … is perfectly abysmal.” He also dismissed China’s proposal that in return for Kim’s halting missile tests and freezing his nuclear weapons program the United States and South Korea end joint military exercises as something that would only benefit Beijing.
In the six-party talks that also involved Russia and China in the negotiations with the United States, Japan and South Korea, Oriki said “There were no good results” from the talks with North Korea, which broke them off in 2009. “That should be the lesson learned.” Later, in answer to a question, he added, the North Koreans “do not have any trust in other countries” when it comes to negotiations.
“There are countries that are not trustworthy,” Iwasaki said. “They want to be a nuclear country” capable of delivering those weapons by missiles.
As to whether Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons, Oriki said for Tokyo that “is very problematic,” noting only nine percent of the Japanese public supported that idea in a recent opinion poll. “For the United States every option is on the table” in ending the threat or responding to an attack from the north.”
“The United States’ nuclear umbrella extends over them without them developing nuclear weapons,” Blair said of Japan and South Korea. He added that some NATO allies have dual-capable aircraft, meaning they can carry conventional or nuclear weapons.