North Korea: Nerve-wracking morning as Japan watches missile launches

People in Tokyo walk past a TV screen showing Kim Jong-unGetty Images

It has been a confusing and nerve-wracking morning for people living in northern Japan.

At 07:50, air raid sirens went off across Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures and TV programs were interrupted to tell people to take shelter. The Japanese coast guard said a missile fired from North Korea was heading over Japan. They later retracted the statement saying instead the missile splashed down in the Sea of Japan without crossing Japanese territory.

From the initial trajectory and the length of flight (around 30 minutes) Japanese authorities tracking the missile appear to have thought it would go over Japan. Instead, it seems to have flown on a so called “lofted trajectory” high up in to space and then steeply back down into the Sea of Japan.

So false alarm – everyone please calm down and go back to your morning coffee. Well not really. First, firing ballistic missiles towards your neighbours without warning, leaving them to guess where the missile will come down, is not normal behaviour. It is extremely provocative and dangerous, and completely outside of international norms.

Second, this comes a day after a record number of missiles were launched from North Korea into seas off the coast of South Korea.

North Korea is deliberately ramping up tensions with its neighbours. It could be building to something bigger, such as a nuclear test, or a full long range ballistic missile test out in to the Pacific, or both.

This is a pattern we have seen Pyongyang use in the past to gain international attention, especially from Washington, and force South Korea, Japan and the United States in to offering concessions and dialogue. It is doing so again now.

The latest North Korean salvo comes just days before crucial US mid-term elections – and Mr Kim will be hoping that showing off his military capabilities will focus minds in the US capital.

But Pyongyang is also far from perfecting its missile technology – particularly its long-range missiles and re-entry vehicles. So, tests like this are not just directed at Japan, but also at the United States. North Korea’s aim is to have reliable long-range weapons that can reach the United States.

If North Korea’s intent is to cow Japan, it is having the opposite effect. Japan’s right wing has long wanted to re-arm the country and abandon its post war pacifist constitution.

Along with the growing power of China, Pyongyang is gives it all the justification it needs. A growing percentage of the Japanese public now support full rearmament.

In Tokyo the defence ministry is proposing a doubling the defence budget and for the first time acquiring long range strike missiles capable of hitting targets inside North Korea.