Japan Says It Won’t Shoot Down North Korean Test Missiles

REUTERS/Issei Kato

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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Japan will not shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles unless they pose a direct threat to its territory, according to the country’s defense minister.

North Korea has fired ballistic missiles over Japan twice in recent months, changing its testing patterns to observe missile performance on a standard or minimum energy trajectory. While the launches raised alarms in Japan, the military did not attempt to intercept either North Korean missile.

“The recent missile tests by North Korea passed at high altitude and there was no fear of them falling in our territory or territorial waters so we did not shoot them down,” Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera told the Financial Times.

“Whether it is Japan or any other country, I think that shooting down a ballistic missile could be construed as a military action,” he explained. “Unless you judge it is an attack on your own country, I think it is difficult to shoot down such missiles.”

Some analysts argue that Japan did not shoot down the missiles passing overhead because the country’s missile defense systems do not have the ability to eliminate enemy projectiles at high altitudes, and for an Aegis ship to intercept the missile at sea, it would have to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

The U.S. and its allies have several missile defense units in the region, specifically Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC) III systems, Aegis, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, all of which have performed well in tests and could theoretically intercept missiles heading toward South Korean or Japanese territory. Kinetic missile defense is always a challenge, though.

Missiles flying high overhead, such as the ones that North Korea shot over Japan recently, are much harder, if not impossible, to hit. The Japanese Defense Minister said that Japan will attempt to shoot down a missile headed for Guam or the U.S. mainland, but evidence suggests that Japan may not yet have that kind of capability.

The island of Guam is protected by THAAD, and the U.S. is defended by the ground-based midcourse defense system. While the former has a perfect test record, the latter has a rather spotty intercept record, although its most recent test was a success.

The U.S. is reportedly considering shooting down North Korean ballistic missiles even if they are not a direct threat to the U.S. and its allies, a U.S. official familiar with operations planning told CNN last month. At this time, it is unclear whether the U.S. is willing to take this step, which could possibly escalate a non-threatening test into a larger conflict.

Japan, however, has made its choice, which is to watch them fly past into the Pacific.

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