On August 31, 1998, North Korea bluntly informed Japan that the next time the Korean War escalated to all-out combat, Tokyo would be a target.
Pyongyang used a multi-stage Taepodong-1 intermediate range ballistic missile to deliver the diplomatic message as a military object lesson. The first stage of the rather poorly constructed missile landed in water west of Japan not that far from Russian territory. The second stage slammed into the North Pacific about 300 kilometers east of Japan.
Poor construction, however, had a virtue. A splash on either side “bracketed” Japan. Kentucky windage said the next shot could hit a Japanese home island.
The 1998 test caught Japan by surprise. It also boggled the Clinton Administration. North Korea claimed that the U.S. and Japan had broken the so-called Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton Administration by failing to provide timely economic aid and promised energy supplies.
That was not the case. The Clinton Administration sought assurances that North Korea had curtailed its nuclear weapons program per the agreement before providing additional aid.
Pyongyang responded to the diplomatic challenge with military intimidation. Instead of answering legitimate questions about its weapons program it fired the Taepodong-1.
The missile test reinforced a conclusion reached by The Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States.
It’s better known by another name: the Rumsfeld Commission, as in Donald Rumsfeld, who became Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration.
In late July, 1998, the missile commission concluded that the U.S. was threatened by “ballistic missiles tipped with biological or nuclear payloads from China, Russia, Iran, Iraq and North Korea.” It also argued that the U.S. intelligence community had consistently underestimated this threat.
The initial report riled establishment Washington. The Clinton Administration bristled. Intelligence agencies huffed. The August 31, 1998 test, however, indicated the Rumsfeld Commission had a valid concern.
North Korea demonstrated a fierce desire to obtain long range ballistic missiles. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test. Its desire to obtain nukes is also unquenched.
Kim Jong Il ordered the 1998 test. He also orchestrated the 2006 nuclear test. He died in late 2011, and his son, Kim Jong Un, assumed control of the hereditary Communist dictatorship.
With 2011 came a change in power. It also marked an acceleration in North Korea’s ballistic missile test program. Since early 2012, Pyongyang has conducted more than three dozen missile tests, firing an estimated 80 missiles (the exact number is debated). So far in 2017, the north has conducted 12 tests, launching a total of 18 missiles.
The most recent test occurred August 29 and it echoed August 1998. A North Korean IRBM overflew the Japanese home island of Hokkaido and splashed down in the North Pacific. Japan did not intercept the missile, but the Japan of 2017 is not the Japan of 1998. Japanese civil defense officials alerted citizens in the missile’s flight path. The government called the launch a grave threat. Japan backs words with weapons. It is acquiring offensive weapons capable of destroying North Korean missile and nuclear weapons storage sites and missile launch sites.
Tokyo has also built a tight alliance with the U.S. and South Korea. South Koreans have many historical reasons to dislike the Japanese. However, North Korea’s insistent pursuit of nuclear weapons and constant threats of all-out war have mellowed southern attitudes regarding Japan. China’s rise to regional power and potential global power has given the Japanese a new appreciation of South Korean military and economic prowess.
Japan’s reaction to the latest North Korean test indicates that the next time a North Korean missile approaches Japanese territory an allied anti-ballistic missile will intercept it.
The stage is set for the all-out war North Korea threatens, but not on North Korea’s terms.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and author.