Do North Korean Missiles Really Threaten Japan?

Tokyo embraces 'military theater' after Pyongyang's rocket launch

Do North Korean Missiles Really Threaten Japan? Do North Korean Missiles Really Threaten Japan?
On Feb. 7, North Korea launched a Unha-3 rocket from its launch site at Dongchang-ri on country’s northwest coast. The rocket successfully placed the... Do North Korean Missiles Really Threaten Japan?

On Feb. 7, North Korea launched a Unha-3 rocket from its launch site at Dongchang-ri on country’s northwest coast. The rocket successfully placed the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite into orbit, but most foreign observers see the launch as an intercontinental ballistic missile test.

Any North Korean weapons test comes with great concern for Japan, as its territory stretches across the flight path of Pyongyang’s long-range missiles. With almost a week’s worth of notice, Tokyo put the Japan Self-Defense Forces on high readiness. Tokyo wheeled out its PAC-3 anti-ballistic missile launchers and sent its AEGIS-equipped destroyers to the Sea of Japan.

Defense Minister Gen Nakatani ordered these units to destroy “any missiles falling within Japanese territory.” At 9:31 a.m. local time, alerts flashed at the top of T.V. broadcasts across the nation. The government issued a warning of the possibility of debris falling across the Ryukyu Islands, which sit directly beneath the previously announced flight path.

But like every launch, nothing fell on Japan. Not even a single bolt.

This left some Japanese critics asking “what was it all for?” Livedoor founder and internet personality Takafumi Horie bemoaned the media circus, government spectacle and wasted taxes that went into deploying the PAC-3s and destroyers when there was no danger to Japan.

The Japanese response to North Korea’s test has certainly been an expensive spectacle — as always — but it is difficult to call it entirely pointless. Was Japan ever really in danger? We can never be completely sure, and it is never a bad thing to be cautious in international affairs.

Was the government’s reaction justified? Well, there the critics might have a point.

north-korea-rocket-paintingAbove — a painting at a school in Napho City celebrates North Korea’s rocket program. Stephan/Flickr photo. At top — a Patriot missile at Kadena Air Base in 2011. U.S. Air Force photo

Playing the game

It’s a truism that every involved country engages in political showmanship in the days following a major North Korean weapons test. There’s a pattern — North Korea throws up smoke and mirrors, China and Russia chastise their rebellious minor ally, and the United States, South Korea and Japan try to bring Pyongyang to heel.

This time was no different. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the planned test a “serious provocation” in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. In 2009, the United Nations imposed sanctions upon North Korea and demanded “that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile.”

To be sure, the latest North Korean rocket did carry a harmless satellite into orbit, and Pyongyang engages in all the trappings of legitimacy. Kim Jong Un’s regime notified both the United Nations and International Maritime Organization of the timing almost a week before the launch. North Korea has its own NASA-like space agency managing the event, the National Aerospace Development Administration. Pyongyang even named its launch site the “Sohae Satellite Launching Station.”

This fools no one.

Military analysts have linked orbital launch rockets with ballistic missile capabilities as far back as Sputnik. If you can deliver a payload to space, you have the basic capability to attack a location anywhere in the world — provided you can master re-entry. This is why North Korea takes great pains to present its recent long-range tests as scientific rocket launches.

The same is true for North Korea’s nuclear program. A country capable of making its own nuclear power program is capable of generating the highly-enriched uranium or plutonium necessary for a nuclear bomb. Pyongyang’s internal logic may not always be clear, but this kind of saber-rattling is designed to extract publicity and concessions from the wider world. And this tactic has — to some extent — worked. The Kim dynasty has conducted four nuclear weapons tests, two of them under Kim Jong Un.

North Korea’s actions are as transparent today as they were throughout the 1990s, but the international community cannot do anything but try to bring Pyongyang back to the table. Yet Kim’s government has no desire to negotiate, and has instead promoted byungjin, a set of policies focused on economic development and building a nuclear arsenal.

This is why the United States and its allies are eager to dispense with Pyongyang’s fiction. “North Korea’s launch using ballistic missile technology, following so closely after its Jan. 6 nuclear test, represents yet another destabilizing and provocative action and is a flagrant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions,” U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice told reporters after the launch.

Prime Minister Abe was even more blunt when answering questions in the Diet before the launch. “The reality is that it is a launch of a ballistic missile,” he said.

Yet even if North Korea chose to attack Japan, it would not be with the Unha missile — and the reason is simply rocket science.

Above — trajectory and staging of Unha-3 launch in 2012. Google Maps screenshot, 38 North data

Rocket science

Foreign observers have known about the Unha-3 missile since it first appeared in 2006. North Korea did not release a formal name, so media reports emphasized that the missile was a larger evolution of the Taepodong-1 missile known as the “Taepodong-2.” Since North Korea’s first “satellite launch” in 2012, the regime’s organs have referred to the missile as Unha-3 (Galaxy-3 in English).

According to aerospace engineer John Schilling, the Unha-3 is too poorly designed for it to be an actual weapon. It takes days to erect, requiring a hard-standing launch site. It is far too large to practically store in missile silos — the only way to hide construction work ahead of a missile’s launch. In addition to its impracticality, the upper-stage seems to lack the thrust necessary to deliver a heavy offensive payload.

In a sense, Pyongyang is lying by omission. The Unha-3 is indeed a space launch vehicle that can put a satellite into orbit. But the process and platform the North Korean space program has created is a solid foundation for testing the technologies needed for an effective intercontinental ballistic missile.

The Unha-3 is also a three-stage rocket. It has three connected boosters that drop away one-by-one as each engine depletes its fuel. Separating these exhausted engines and shedding excess weight is more fuel efficient, and fuel management is probably the most important component of rocketry. The Feb. 7 launch showed a similar staging pattern to the 2012 Unha-3 launch — its trajectory pictured above.

The rocket lifted off at 9:30 a.m. and headed south above the Yellow Sea. The first stage separated at 9:32 and exploded into around 270 pieces which fell into the sea near Jeju Island, South Korea. The second stage lit and continued propelling the rocket high over the East China Sea. At around 9:36, the second stage separated and the missile disappeared from South Korean radar while debris fell into the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines.

It seems clear now that the third stage successfully made it to space now that the United States Joint Space Operations Center began tracking a new object in an inclined orbit of 97.5°.

But this raises doubts as to the potential threat posed to Japan, according to the Japanese defense blog Spike Military Affairs Review.

Spike’s argument is simple — we will never see debris from these tests falling on Japanese soil because the ballistic trajectories of each stage do not land on Japanese territory. The first stage booster will never clear the Yellow Sea, and if it fails to fire then the entire rocket will splash down close to Jeju. When the second stage burns, the rocket will clear Japan’s territorial seas entirely and splash down exactly as demonstrated in all the Unha-3 launches to date.

Spike further noted that the Unha-3 appears to have an abort mechanism to destroy the rocket in case of a failure. This is a common safety feature, but it also protects the remainder of the rocket from falling into American or South Korean hands. After aborting the launch, the ensuing explosion would destroy most of the debris and burn up the remaining fuel, reducing the possibility of it causing harm on the way down. If the abort procedure started immediately after staging, the missile’s ballistic trajectory would still seem to carry the debris clear of Japanese territory.

“It is okay to say Taepodong-2 represents zero danger to Japan,” Spike noted, at least in terms of immediate explosive catastrophes.

But that assumes the abort mechanism actually functions as required, and that the second stage is stable and maintains the correct attitude and trajectory. It also requires that problems occur only during staging, as a partial thrust of the second stage could push debris far enough to hit Japan’s islands. Problems are most likely to occur during staging, but a mid-stage catastrophe is not unheard of — a lightning strike prematurely shut down the engine of a U.S. weather satellite launch in 1986.

The reality is that North Korean tests fly over Japanese territory, and should anything go wrong, it is conceivable that falling debris could land Japanese territory. It is highly unlikely, but Tokyo rightly wants to ensure every iota of safety that it can.

The Self-Defense Forces deployments are thus not “pointless.” They have deterrent and public assurance effects that are as important as the ability to destroy any falling debris — though it is not entirely clear that the PAC-3 deployments could ever actually intercept such debris.

 PAC-3 deployed at the Japanese Ministry of Defense, 2015. MoD photoPAC-3s at the Japanese Ministry of Defense, 2015. MoD photo

Military theater

Ultimately, Japan’s deployment of the PAC-3 launchers and the deployment of AEGIS destroyers comes down to several political aims. Two of which are particularly egregious to critics concerned about Abe’s designs to revise the Japanese constitution and his efforts at “remilitarizing” the island nation.

First, Tokyo’s leaders want to cover their asses. Regardless of how low the risk is, if a piece of a North Korean rocket fell onto Japanese soil, there would be outrage in the press. In the worst possible case where someone is killed, blame would turn to defense officials and political leaders. No one wants to be the person with their neck on the line.

The second aim is linked to the first — demonstrate to the Japanese people, and the entire world, that the government is actually doing something. This justifies the existence of the frequently contentious Self-Defense Forces, and possibly acts as a deterrent by demonstrating Japanese capabilities. PAC-3s and AEGIS have hogged a lot of the government’s Yen over the past two decades, and North Korean missiles are a great opportunity to put them to use.

The military deployments have a high profile, and newspapers around the world have featured photos of Japanese troops responding to a crisis that is only tangentially linked to Japan. Think of this as the military version of “security theater,” where largely symbolic measures become confused for measures that actually make us safer. This is where the critics have a point.

Still, no good politician would pass up an opportunity to look tough. For years, hawkish Liberal Democratic Party politicians have talked up the missile threat, territorial incursions by North Korean spy ships and the supposedly unresolved abduction of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang’s agents in the mid-late 20th century.

Pyongyang has given these hawks a means to justify improving Japan’s missile defense capabilities, its radar stations and its response times — all with their eyes firmly set on China’s rise. But few politicians consider North Korea a serious threat to Japan today, and conservatives are far less cautious about their desire to balance against a more powerful China.

When North Korea rattles its sabers, Japan’s conservative leadership will milk it for all its worth. Left out is a realistic — and skeptical — appraisal of the North Korean threat.