Shinzo Abe is not letting the North Korean crisis go to waste. As Pyongyang steps up its nuclear saber-rattling, Japanese politicos are increasingly calling for first-strike capabilities—and as the Washington Post suggests, the Japanese Prime Minister may be orchestrating such efforts from behind the scenes:
“Japan can’t just wait until it’s destroyed,” Hiroshi Imazu, the head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s security committee and a proponent of the idea, said in an interview. “It’s legally possible for Japan to strike an enemy base that’s launching a missile at us, but we don’t have the equipment or the capability.”
Gen Nakatani, defense minister until last year and a member of the committee, agrees. “I believe that we should consider having the capacity to strike,” he told The Washington Post.
Their public pronouncements have not come out by accident, analysts say. Such senior members of the powerful ruling party would not raise the issue unless it was being promoted at the highest levels.
This particular door was cracked open a few weeks ago, when Japan’s defense minister refused to rule out acquiring pre-emptive capabilities against North Korea. Since then, a growing chorus of voices from Abe’s party have echoed the idea, suggesting a coordinated attempt to build momentum.
Abe is playing it smart here. At a time when bribery allegations have tarnished his own image, the Prime Minister has not been publicly leading the charge for first-strike capabilities, instead lying low and staying noncommittal while his fellow Liberal Democrats introduce the idea. But it is no secret that Abe has long supported Japanese remilitarization and wants to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution—and his recent acquisition of F-35 jets position him well to develop first-strike capabilities if the public mood allows it.
It is too soon to tell if that will be the case; Japan’s pacifist constituency is a powerful one that has obstructed Abe’s remilitarization drive in the past. But rising fears about North Korea could change the public’s mood in favor of a tougher posture, and Abe’s party is clearly putting out trial balloons to gauge the public reaction. This is a debate worth watching, with implications that could reverberate across Asia.