North Korea's Missile Test Leaves Japan in a Quandary

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North Korea's provocative July 4 missile test has left Japan scrambling for a response. As evidence first became public two weeks ago that a North Korean test might be imminent, Tokyo had been among the first and loudest voices in an international chorus demanding that Pyongyang refrain from going ahead. Japan responded immediately by suspending the ferry transport and charter flights between the countries, and blocking North Korean officials from traveling to Japan. It also moved quickly to co-sponsor, with the U.S., a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that North Korea immediately cease development, testing and deployment of ballistic missiles. The Council meets to discuss the matter on Wednesday.

Now Tokyo must decide whether to adopt harsher financial sanctions in retaliation — most notably, the option to ban money transfers to North Korea. But Japan may proceed cautiously. Although Japanese frustration with North Korea is running high, there is also a longstanding fear in Tokyo that if North Korea is pushed too far, the results could be unpredictable and potentially devastating.

When intelligence reports first surfaced in late June that North Korea had begun fueling booster rockets capable of launching various types of its missiles, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso warned that a test would prompt a "very vehement" reaction from Japan. He said his government would consider immediate economic sanctions, and would recommend that the U.N. Security Council take action. Since then, various Japanese leaders, including Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, have reiterated that threat.

But North Korea did not blink, and its launch of six missiles before dawn on Wednesday prompted a hastily convened 7 a.m. meeting in Tokyo between U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer and Japan's Cabinet Secretary, Foreign Minister and Defense Agency Director. "This is a very dangerous thing that [North Korea has] done this morning," Schieffer told reporters after the meeting. The Japanese government, especially its foreign ministry, has been in a state of frenzied activity ever since.

Japanese-North Korean relations are already at their lowest point in decades, having risen to a new level of tension after North Korea's last missile test, in 1998, when part of Taepodong-1 missile fell in Japanese waters.

The 1998 test shocked Japan, and prompted Tokyo to increase its intelligence efforts, missile defenses and military cooperation with the U.S. In March 2003, Japan launched two satellites to gather intelligence on North Korea. And in late June, Japan's Yomuiri newspaper reported that Japan had agreed in May to the deployment of advanced Patriot interceptor missiles on U.S. bases in Japan by the end of the year. Japan okayed the Patriot deployment, the paper said, largely due to the increasing threat of North Korea.

Bilateral ties have been further strained in recent years by North Korea's refusal to provide information about perhaps dozens of Japanese citizens it kidnapped throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Responding to public outrage over the kidnapping issue, Japan's parliament has passed several laws that would facilitate sanctions against North Korea, including restricting monetary transfers and personal travel between the two countries.

Banning remittances "would be a serious retaliation," says Peter Beck of the International Crisis Group, "because those sanctions would hurt and North Korea knows it." So, Japan now has to decide how strenuously to enforce the threats it made before the launch. And the question of just how tightly to turn the economic screws may be one that Japan prefers to decide in consultation with the other key players in the crisis — the U.S., South Korea and China — in the days ahead. At a Wednesday press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said the missile test was "a serious problem," but that Japan would explore its options, gather more information and confer with other affected nations before it took further action.

- With reporting by Michiko Toyama/Tokyo