It won't be the first time that a near-panicked Japan has came close to the edge when it comes to North Korea, and in preparation for an "emergency" was planning to evacuate its citizens located in South Korea. The last such notable spike in escalations took place in April, when as the Yomiuri Shimbun reported at the time, the Japanese government had asked the U.S. to provide advance consultation if it is about to launch military action against North Korea, and "ramped up preparations for emergency situations", including the potential evacuation of some 57,000 Japanese citizens currently in South Korea.
Fast forward to today, when moments ago Japan's Nikkei reported that as tensions on the Korean Peninsula reach new heights following Pyongyang's first (allegedly) hydrogen bomb test, Japan is planning a possible mass evacuation of the nearly 60,000 Japanese citizens currently living in or visiting South Korea.
"There is a possibility of further provocations," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a Monday meeting with ruling coalition lawmakers. "We need to remain extremely vigilant and do everything we can to ensure the safety of our people."
In response to North Korea's sixth nuclear test, Japan and the U.S. are seeking a peaceful resolution by ratcheting up economic pressure on the rogue state through an oil embargo and other measures, while South Korea's president has also called for a currency/FX blockade of the Kim regime. And yet, what has spooked Tokyo is that on Sunday, Defense Secretary James Mattis also said any threat to the U.S. or its allies "will be met with a massive military response - a response both effective and overwhelming." Which means thousands of Japanese may soon be in harm's way.
According to Nikkei, there are currently about 38,000 long-term Japanese residents in South Korea, as well as another 19,000 or so tourists and other short-term travelers. "If the U.S. decided on a military strike against the North, the Japanese government would start moving toward an evacuation on its own accord regardless of whether the American plans are public," a Japanese government source said.
Tokyo is working on a four-tier emergency plan based on the severity of the situation: discouraging unessential travel to South Korea, discouraging all travel to South Korea, urging Japanese citizens there to evacuate, and finally, urging them to shelter in place.
Should skirmishes erupt between the two Koreas, for example, the Japanese government would discourage all new travel to South Korea. At the same time, it would urge citizens already there to evacuate using commercial flights. Although the Japanese Embassy would help secure airline reservations, the government's role under this scenario would mainly be to provide information.
But Japan would need to coordinate with South Korean authorities under a shelter-in-place scenario. If Pyongyang launched a major military attack that leads to the closure of South Korean airports, the Japanese embassy would urge citizens still in the country to stay at home, or move to a safer area within the South.
Also in case of a worst case scenario, Seoul has agreed to give Japanese citizens access to safe zones, such as designated subway stations, churches and shopping malls, according to a Japanese source. The Japanese government has already provided its citizens in South Korea with information on over 900 such facilities.
Furthermore, in the event of airport closures, the best option for Japanese citizens to return home would be by sea from the southeastern port city of Busan. The Japanese government is working to obtain cooperation from U.S. forces stationed in South Korea to transport evacuees across the country from Seoul to Busan.
Additionally, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces would need permission from South Korea's government to operate inside the country. Approval has not been forthcoming, Yonhap reports, and could provoke a backlash from a South Korean public harboring historical grievances at the former colonial power. But SDF vessels could help in ferrying Japanese citizens home from Busan.
Such a crises could make it easier for terrorists and other dangerous individuals to enter Japan disguised as returning citizens. The Japanese government aims to work with the U.S. to prevent such unlawful entry. One proposal would create a temporary holding area for returnees in Busan or Japan.
"We are looking at a range of responses" to a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, from securing evacuees and processing their entry to creating and operating holding facilities, as well as determining whether Japan is responsible for their protection, Abe had said at a parliamentary session in April.
As we reported in April, and as the infographic below showed, the Japanese government has been contemplating five potential emergency responses should a military clash break out between the US and North Korea. They include the following:
- 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