One day after Kim Jong Un's regime balked at this weekend's UN sanctions, promising retaliation and threatening to attack the US with a nuclear weapon, Japan's government has released a new 500-page report in which it warns that the threat from North Korean nuclear weapons has reached a “new stage” and that Pyongyang’s weapons program had “advanced considerably,” to the point where it was possible that the regime had acquired the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads.
The white paper, approved by Japan’s cabinet on Tuesday morning, was published less than two weeks after North Korea test-fired its second ICBM, which US experts have said may be able to reach most of the continental United States.
According to the Guardian, "Japan’s defence ministry said that security threats had reached a new stage after the North conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 ballistic missile launches last year."
The report went on to speculate that North Korea had improved its technological expertise to the point where it could theoretically marry a nuclear warhead with a missile.
“It is conceivable that North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme has already considerably advanced and it is possible that North Korea has already achieved the miniaturisation of nuclear bombs into warheads and has acquired nuclear warheads,” the ministry said.
“North Korea’s development of ballistic missiles and its nuclear programme are becoming increasingly real and imminent problems for the Asia-Pacific region including Japan, as well as the rest of the world,” said the report.
While it has yet to be confirmed, some experts believe the North has already miniaturised its nuclear capability, even as others believe the regime is still several years away from being able to do so.
Scott LaFoy, a Washington-based imagery analyst focusing on ballistic missile and space technologies, said the report reflected “an increasing belief that North Korea either has or is very close to having a nuclear warhead”. Based on data and projections by experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, LaFoy told the Guardian: “I lean towards believing North Korea is either in possession of a device, or the potential sixth nuclear test will be the practical test of said device.
“The Japanese defence white paper doesn’t add much to this due to its expected government vagueness, but it is consistent with what I’m seeing.”
To be sure, Japan - which would be first in the line of attack - has reasons to stir the pot and escalate the situation, hoping for pre-emptive military intervention from the US. “North Korea’s missiles represent a deepening threat. That, along with China’s continued threatening behavior in the East China Sea and South China Sea, is a major concern for Japan,” the country’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, told reporters in Tokyo.
Japan has held several evacuation drills in recent months in preparation for a North Korean missile attack, while Onodera is among those who have called for the country to acquire the ability to strike North Korean bases if it is attacked.
That would require a drastic change in Japan’s defence posture to allow it to use offensive weapons, such as bombers and cruise missiles capable of striking targets overseas – a move that would inevitably prompt a debate on whether the country was honouring the defensive posture required by its “pacifist” constitution.
Japan’s self-defense forces have dramatically increased their involvement in joint exercises with the US, and the defense ministry already plans to upgrade its ship-to-air and mobile missile defence capabilities, the Guardian adds.
And now that Trump has a military veteran advising him, Japan may get its wish. The wildcard remains China, which has promised to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea agreed at the weekend, even though it claims it has the most to lose from weakening its close trade links with Pyongyang. Beijing has been criticised for failing to enforce previous sanctions packages, but China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said the measures were necessary to demonstrate international opposition to North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.
“Owing to China’s traditional economic ties with North Korea, it will mainly be China paying the price for implementing the resolution,” a Chinese foreign ministry statement quoted Wang as saying at a regional security forum in Manila on Monday.
If NKorea indeed is in possession of the technology, it is very likely that Kim's next provocative move will not be an ICBM launch but rather another nuclear test.