Japan: The United States of America has “a strong determination” to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis using military action if necessary, one of Japan’s most senior defence figures has said.
In saying so, former defence minister Satoshi Morimoto has brushed aside widespread expert views that the rogue regime will drift into becoming a full nuclear power because there is no plausible way to stop them. The remarks also reflect a powerful strain of thought in Japan that the situation cannot be allowed to limp along until Kim Jong-un gets what he wants.
The former defence minister told Fairfax Media the next few weeks will be a crucial period of high tension and brinkmanship on the peninsula.
“North Korea strongly insists the US has to accept the North as a nuclear power. The US cannot do anything like that. So Washington has no intention, absolutely no intention, to open the dialogue with North Korea this time,” said Mr Morimoto, who now serves as a special adviser to current Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera and is influential and well-connected within the government of Shinzo Abe.
He believed the US had a “very strong determination … to destroy the Kim [regime]” – though he later clarified this by saying the US had a “strong determination to find out the solution to the present [crisis]”.
“They have no intention to extend the final decision into the future,” he said. “Something may happen. We have very high tension for the next one-and-a-half months.”
Mr Morimoto, who is also president of Takushoku University, predicted North Korea needed less than a year to have functional intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads that could be fitted on them.
His views reflect deep concern in Japan about the profound ramifications of a fully nuclear-armed North Korea, reflected in a series of high-level briefings provided to Fairfax Media in Japan this week. The latest crisis has exacerbated debate about Japan’s strengthening its defence posture, including even going nuclear, and intensified concerns – already present across Asia since Donald Trump’s election – about US commitment to the region.
Mr Morimoto said the Kim regime would “never … abandon their nuclear and missile programs” and therefore “America has two options: possible military action and very strong pressure through the United Nations Security Council to stop all money flow.”
But he added that most policy-makers in Japan were “very negative and very pessimistic” that China would agree to cut off energy supplies to North Korea – seen as a final ace the Security Council could pull if it wants to truly strangle North Korea.
“Members of the Chinese Communist Party are very reluctant to accept America’s requirement for stopping that crude oil supply.”
Asked whether he was predicting war, Mr Morimoto said: “I think Washington has not decided … The final decision-maker is [US Defence Secretary] Mr Mattis … Not the president.”
He said with North Korea showing no inclination to stop its provocations – and with the region on high alert this weekend for another possible missile launch – the regime was “joining some kind of chicken game with the United States and the United States has no intention to open dialogue”.
“What is the result of the collision course?” he asked.
Mr Trump has been in close contact with Mr Abe in the recent period of crisis. He spoke to Mr Abe twice around the time of the latest tests and well before even South Korea’s leader Moon Jae-in.
A senior Japanese defence official told Fairfax Media that Kim Jong-un’s objective was precisely to “break the ties between the United States and Japan and South Korea”.
“If the US recognises North Korea as a nuclear power, then Japan and South Korea can no longer rely on the US for a nuclear deterrent. These two countries need to face the nuclear threat by the North Koreans on their own,” the official said, stressing he was giving a personal opinion but one that was widely shared by other people.
Ken Jimbo, a respected defence scholar with Keio University, said that if North Korea could develop a stockpile of long-range missiles, the US would face the “classic question” of whether it was prepared to sacrifice Tokyo or Seoul for Los Angeles or San Francisco – a debate that would play out in US media and Congress.
“Even now we have logical doubts about how much the United States will commit to our defence,” Professor Jimbo said. “With North Korea having ICBMs, these kinds of [alliance] decoupling concerns may inevitably arise in Tokyo and Seoul. And that will actually trigger the debate whether we should actually obtain our own nuclear capability … or at least stronger defence capability and conventional strike.”
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