U.S. allies are taking the possibility of a conflict with North Korea more seriously as its capabilities improve and the threat escalates.
Both South Korea and Japan are pursuing improved offensive and defensive abilities — from heavier warheads to improved missile defense to pre-emptive strike capabilities — to counter the North Korean threat and prepare for a potential military conflict in Northeast Asia.
President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke over the phone Friday to coordinate a response to “North Korea’s continued destabilizing and escalatory behavior,” the White House readout of the call revealed. “The two leaders agreed to strengthen our alliance through defense cooperation and to strengthen South Korea’s defense capabilities.”
Trump approved “planned purchases by South Korea of billions of dollars in American military equipment.”
Trump and Moon also agreed to revise the guidelines setting limits and restrictions on South Korea’s missile development programs. “The two leaders agreed to the principle of revising the missile guideline to a level desired by South Korea, sharing the view that it was necessary to strengthen South Korea’s defense capabilities in response to North Korea’s provocations and threats,” the Blue House, office of the South Korean president, said in a statement.
At the moment, the maximum range for a South Korean ballistic missile is set at 500 miles, and the maximum payload these long-range missiles can carry is 1,100 pounds. South Korea intends to double the weight of its warheads to ensure that they have the ability to penetrate North Korea’s hardened bunkers and underground defenses.
Japan’s defense ministry submitted a record budget request of $160 million for missile defense, various military aircraft, new naval vessels, and the development of long-range and hypersonic missiles to break through enemy defenses.
Japan is preparing to counter a nuclear North Korea and a rising China, both of which have become increasingly-assertive in pursuing their respective national interests under the direction of their distinctly bullish leaders. These threats to Japanese interests help Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convince officials to revise Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution and revive Japanese military strength.
As the only country to have ever been on the receiving end of a nuclear bomb, Japan is naturally wary of North Korea, which launched a missile over Japanese territory earlier this week. Japan is also startled by China’s aggressive military expansionism. China, however, has expressed concerns about frequent increases in Japan’s defense spending, given its experiences during World War II.
The emergence of new threats in Northeast Asia has led to a debate over whether or not Japan should develop pre-emptive strike capabilities for defense. A proposal for the development of such a capability was delivered to Abe in March.
“North Korea has demonstrated its capability to hit targets anywhere in Japan,” Narushige Michishita, a defense expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, stressed to The Washington Post, “It has become even more important for Japan to improve its missile and civil defense capabilities, and seriously think about acquiring limited but meaningful strike capabilities.”
Abe has demonstrated some hesitancy in pursuing pre-emptive strike capabilities, but increased North Korean aggression may shift his thinking on this particular matter.
North Korea perceives defensive buildups in neighboring countries as preparation for an offensive invasion. The North is likely to view developments in South Korea through this particularly twisted lens and escalate. There is, however, a strong possibility the North will do so regardless of the actions taken by its neighbors.
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