Alarms Sound in Japan: North Korean Missiles Increase Tensions in the East

Image credit: Ahn Ho Rhee

“Japan and the United States are currently facing the most challenging and complex security environment in recent history,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told U.S. President Joe Biden at the Oval Office on Jan. 13. 

In 2022, North Korea launched roughly 95 missiles – many of which were intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) over the Pacific. As a result, Japan decided to double its defense spending for nuclear deterrence, and South Korea proposed creating its own nuclear arsenal. Both nations have been strengthening their bilateral alliances with the United States out of concern for North Korea’s quickly growing and advancing nuclear threat. 

Although the UN Security Council has attempted to address these violations through previous resolutions, Russian and Chinese vetoes rejected the motion to employ sanctions as a punishment. 

North Korea’s strengthening ties with Russia and China have been alarming for democratic nations around the world. At the meeting with Prime Minister Kishida on Jan. 13, President Biden said, “Let me be crystal clear: the United States is fully, thoroughly, completely committed to the alliance” — portraying the importance of this relationship for years to come. This reaffirmation of the partnership confirms the importance of democratic alliances against autocracies, specifically those with nuclear capabilities.

On Oct. 4, North Korea fired a missile directly over Japan, and on Nov. 3, it fired several more over the de facto maritime border, causing sirens to blare in South Korea and Japan. These missiles (likely including an ICBM) were launched the day after North Korea had tested 23 missiles the day prior. Later that month, North Korea announced that it had successfully tested its Hwasong-17 ICBM, which would have the capability to hit the mainland United States. In addition, on Dec. 18, North Korea tested two more missiles with the potential to hit Japan after Prime Minister Kishida announced his plans to increase his country’s military spending and strengthen relations with the United States via diplomacy and U.S. military installations.

With an exponential increase in North Korean nuclear launches in the past three months alone, South Korea and Japan have responded with precautionary measures. South Korea carried out multiple air drills with the United States off its coast, including the launching of 4 missiles. 

In addition, in a trilateral effort, South Korea, Japan and the United States have been conducting anti-submarine exercises, amongst many other types of military preparations. In response, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un accused them of attempting to invade North Korea. He also claimed the emergence of a new era known as the “neo-Cold War,” where global foreign policy will shift as the hegemonies of China and the United States clash. With this in mind, Jong-un stated that he is determined to greatly expand his country’s defense, specifically nuclear capabilities. 

Ahead of the meeting in Washington, the United States and Japan also announced the increase of American military presence in Okinawa to counter China’s increasing hostility towards Taiwan in recent months. Most notably, China launched ballistic missiles landing in Japan’s economic zone outside of Taiwan last August. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also significantly increased worries about China attacking Taiwan, prompting Kishida to upgrade Japan’s military approach. 

According to Kwon Yong Soo, a former professor at Korea National Defense University, North Korea could begin test-launching an ICBM with the potential to reach the Pacific coast of the United States within the first half of 2023. This rapid increase in North Korea’s nuclear technologies has created an alarming situation for democracies in the region. This May, the G7 nations will meet for a summit in Hiroshima where they will discuss the next steps for security and defense in East Asia. Biden and Kishida stated that they will continue working to demonstrate “the G7’s commitment to upholding the international order based on the rule of law.” 

In a recent address regarding Japan’s G7 priorities in 2023, the country stated that building up nuclear deterrence capabilities is of utmost importance. Moving forward, Japan and South Korea will prepare for North Korean aggression and will enforce deterrence with help from the United States.

As North Korea and other autocracies continue to proliferate their nuclear arsenal, tensions will increase within international organizations and democratic nations. Waging war, (such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine) means that the use of nuclear weapons is becoming more and more realistic. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has used the threat of employing nuclear weapons to ward off intervention from outside states in the Ukrainian conflict.

Will nuclear deterrence be enough in the future? Increasing tensions in the East and the alarming dangers of nuclear dictatorships are causing the questioning of the current global nuclear policy.


Raegan Lusk

Raegan Luján Lusk is a freshman majoring in international relations with a minor in human rights and on the pre-law track. She is currently involved in Jumpstart teaching preschool students how to read, and in the Society of Women in Law. She is also currently learning Korean and knows some Spanish. Growing up in San Diego, she enjoys going to the beach and exploring museums. Raegan decided to join Glimpse from the Globe in order to make international affairs more accessible and to give people the resources to help others.