I do my best not to be judgmental on this blog, since the people that I’d like to be judgmental about typically do not read it. Instead, I do my best to help people understand things that interest me. Now, there’s something that has been on my mind the past week and fermenting on my hard disk there for almost as long, and it’s been hard to keep myself from ranting about the silliness of it all. So, before I drink too much tonight and write things that I’ll regret later—been there, done that—I’m going to post the following, then make dinner and settle down to watch Sanfrecce Hiroshima (hopefully) demolish Al-Ahly.
North Korea’s “de facto missile” has yet to be launched, but has already scored two hits: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura. Let me explain.
The North Korean government notified the governments of Japan and the Philippines, the two countries in the way, governments of its intent to fire a satellite launch rocket, providing information regarding the schedule—between 7am and 12am December 10 through 22—and its potential flight path, which includes Japanese and Philippine airspaces. The Japanese government has duly moved two land-based, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 systems* to Ishigaki Island and dispatched three AEGIS-equipped destroyers to the vicinity.**
Now, that is to be expected. True, the chances are extremely small that the “de facto missile” will threaten to hit Japanese (or Philippine) territory in the case of an accident, since there will be lots and lots of water and very little land in the vicinity of its intended flight area and there is material for only so many chunks of debris large enough to be worth making sure that it will fall in a shower of bits and pieces instead of their original sizes. But how could the Self-Defense Force pass up an opportunity to conduct exercises in a real-world situation? For good measure, the rest of the Patriot systems stationed in the Tokyo area have also been put on alert, just in case perhaps, but more likely because it’s a good opportunity to test the overall system.
Let’s hope that the North Koreans get it over with soon, though, since the resituated systems can go back to protecting the potential targets, which are now open to a surprise attack from the more than 200 Nodong ballistic missiles, any of which may be carrying a nuclear warhead.***
So far so good. But here’s the truly stupid part. Prime Minister Noda has decided to stay in his Tokyo office from seven to noon from December 10 until the North Korean government launches the three-stage rocket. Now, the launch is not some unforeseen emergency that requires on-the-fly, high level decisions but an event that can and should be fully prepared for since it has been announced to take place within certain parameters using broadly familiar technology. All that the Noda should be doing when the event occurs is to make sure that he reads from the appropriate prewritten announcement, depending on the actual outcome. Something really bad may happen, say a botched blastoff that sends it in the direction of one of the main Japanese islands. But the prime minister’s presence in his office will be meaningless in that case since the response should be instantaneous and automatic, instead of being formed through a back-and-forth between the prime minister’s office and the relevant ministers on one hand and the operational arms of the government on the other.
As a US national security expert whom I talked to about this on Friday more or less said, does anyone think that US presidents ever refrain from campaigning during the last two years of his terms just because there’s a national security threat afoot. For Japan, the North Korean launch is only remotely and tenuously and certainly not immediately the case? And what if the North Korean government had announced that the window would be open until January, not December, 17? February? March? What if it left schedule open-ended? There must be a technological limit to this since the Paektusan-1 SLV/Taepodong 1 cannot be kept loaded with liquid fuel forever, but you get the idea.
But that is exactly what Noda is doing, and the self-restraint may well last till the end of the election campaign unless the North Korean government decides to take no chances and makes use of the first favorable opportunity for the launch. For the Japanese election will be held on December 16, while the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death and the vote for the South Korean presidency, the two most likely events with which a launch would be associated from a propaganda viewpoint, fall on December 17 and 19 respectively. As it is, the vigil may last even longer, since there is information emanating from North Korea that the launch may be delayed beyond the self-imposed December 22 deadline.
It’s not hard to see the reason why he’s adopting this stance. Miscommunication and delays, or perception thereof, regarding any unexpected events involving anything related, directly or otherwise, to the national security framework has been poison for incumbent administrations. Here’s an extreme example. In 2001, a US submarine surfacing off Oahu hit and sank a Japanese high school training vessel, killing five teachers and four fishery students. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who was playing golf at the time he was notified of the accident, was severely criticized for not stopping play and tending to the issue. This was not really a national security issue, but it was treated as if it were one anyway by the national media because it involved the US military. If the collision had occurred with a civilian vessel, it would have been treated as an ordinary, if tragic, accident that did not require the prime minister’s immediate action.
The opposition is always ready to capitalize on these events and the media is more than happy to jump on the bandwagon to find fault with incumbent administrations.**** So Noda feels that he cannot take any chances, and I think that he’s right, politically speaking. You could try to explain the circumstances and make a stand, but that’s hard to do when your party has done its best to make the administration bad when it had its hands on the other end of the stick as the opposition.
As it is, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura proved this point when he told the media that he want the North Koreans to do it as soon as possible so that the Noda administration could get back to serious campaigning. The opposition immediately went on the attack, and no one, not the media, not even Fujimura himself, stood up for common sense.
* They must be the systems already deployed to Okinawa Island, where most of the US and Japanese military facilities in Okinawa are located.
** The United States is also using two AEGIS-equipped destroyers to monitor the launch and may deploy two more.
*** I assume that the Nodong outnumbers those antiballistic missile projectiles and is vastly more numerous that those that can be launched in time to have a reasonable chance of intercepting them. I also assume that we have no way of determining which, if any, such missiles being launched in our direction carry nuclear warheads.
**** As it is, Mori still believes that the media was out to get him in 2001, and I think that there’s a measure of truth to that. Media coverage is affected when the journalists doing the coverage dislikes the person being covered. This has been observed in the US media and could be a universal phenomenon, since most journalists are human.