Judging by the precautionary actions of North Korea's neighbors, the next 48 hours on the Korean peninsula could see substantial volatility, because at the same time as China's largest carrier was said to suspend flights to Pyongyang, the Japanese government has asked the U.S. to provide advance consultation if it is about to launch military action against North Korea, and "has ramped up preparations for emergency situations" according to Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun, including the potential evacuation of some 57,000 Japanese citizens currently in South Korea.
According to the Japanese publication, PM Shinzo Abe stressed that the region is becoming increasingly tense. “[U.S. President Donald Trump] has stated that all options are on the table. It’s a fact tensions are rising,” he said at the Prime Minister’s Office after receiving a written proposal calling for tougher sanctions on North Korea from the Liberal Democratic Party’s Eriko Yamatani, chief of the headquarters for the abduction issue.
He added that "if an unexpected situation occurs, we’ll ask the United States to cooperate in rescuing the abduction victims."
The Japanese government, like its South Korean peer, has asked for advance consultation regarding any U.S. military action against North Korea during a series of meetings between Japanese and U.S. officials. The U.S. side is said to have responded positively to the request. This is because Japan would need to take appropriate precautions given that, as an ally of Washington, it could be a target for retaliation should the U.S. military attack North Korea, although in order to preserve the "element of surprise" it would not be at all surprising if Trump proceeded to launching a strike unannounced.
As the infographic below shows, the Japanese government is contemplating five potential emergency responses should a military clash break out between the US and North Korea:
- Logistical support by Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in the event of a local conflict
- Use of force by the SDF in the event of a full scale war
- Protection of Japanese citizens in South Korea
- Preparation for armed attacks against Japan
- Civil protection and response to evacuees
There are three main threats Japan would face if Trump launches an attack: in addition to a potential ballistic missile retaliation; the mass evacuation of thousands of Japanese citizens, and what would likely be a massive refugee onslaught by North Koreans.
Furthermore, recall that under its post-war constitution, Japan is not allowed to have offensive military forces. Its Article 9 declares "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." That may copmlicate logistics should war indeed break out in North Korea.
As the Japan Times notes, a North Korean attack on Japan would involve ballistic missiles. The Japanese government has been bolstering defensive measures against ballistic missiles, including making permanent in August 2016 an order to the Self-Defense Forces to intercept and destroy incoming missiles.
There is also the concern of an imminent evacuation:
A difficult issue that would emerge in a contingency on the Korean Peninsula is the rescue and protection of an estimated 57,000 Japanese, including tourists, in South Korea. The government started compiling an evacuation plan in the 1990s and has updated and changed it several times. The government plans to convene a meeting of the four ministers who form the National Security Council to review the strategy for dealing with this issue at an early date.
Security legislation that came into force in March 2016 newly allows the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to take steps to protect, rescue and transport Japanese overseas. The Japanese government plans to use government-chartered aircraft and SDF transport vessels for such evacuations, which would be conducted in cooperation with the U.S. military.
A potential complication here is that the governments of Japan and South Korea don't really have the best diplomatic relations, a tension that goes as far back as treatment of Koreans by the Japanese during World War II. “South Korea’s allergy toward the SDF is still strong, so there has not been much progress regarding concrete talks between the Japanese and South Korean governments,” a senior Defense Ministry official told The Yomiuri Shimbun.
The Japanese government must also figure out how to cope with the huge number of refugees expected to descend on Japan from the Korean Peninsula. They would need to be temporarily accommodated, but it also is possible that North Korean agents would slip into Japan with the intention of striking nuclear power plants, heavily populated areas and other targets. As the Shimbun adds, implementing immigration control procedures for those refugees would not be easy.
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So in case airstrikes do begin, will Japan get involved on the offensive, in breach of its constitution, and a development that would in turn put both China and Russia on edge?
While in theory, the SDF is supposed to jointly respond with U.S. forces according to how a contingency on the Korean Peninsula would develop, however in practice a Japanese response would likely be limited: senior Defense Ministry official emphasized the difference made by the security legislation, which permit the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense: “There has been progress regarding Japan-U.S. coordination for role sharing.”
The most realistic SDF activity would be logistics support for the U.S. military. The SDF is permitted to supply ammunition to U.S. forces and refuel ready-to-fly fighter jets, among other measures, in situations that do not constitute an armed attack but are recognized as having an important influence on Japan’s security and safety.
Still, as Shimbun notes, "in a situation that could result in Japan sustaining damage equal in seriousness to a direct attack, the government would recognize that the nation’s survival is under threat and permit the use of force by the SDF. Using the right of collective self-defense, it would become possible for the SDF to defend U.S. ships by counterattacking enemies that attacked them, based on the SDF mobilization order. The SDF could also conduct other operations, including minesweeping in the open sea to remove mines laid by North Korea.
Under such a situation, the government would simultaneously recognize that Japan is at imminent risk of coming under attack while likely starting preparations based on the Civil Protection Law, such as evacuating residents.
Ideally all of the above contingency scenarios never have to be implemented, and the threat of a US attack on North Korea remains just that, eventaully resulting in de-escalation instead of potentially unleashing another regional conflict and what some would saw "world war" in addition to the similar development in the middle-east. Unfortunately, considering how long the neo-con warhawks had been "caged" and prevented from profiting from an all out war, we doubt this optimistic scenario deserves much merit.