TOKYO (AP) — The threat to Japan from North Korea has reached a "new stage" now that the country is capable of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile and its nuclear weapons program has advanced, a defense ministry report said Tuesday.
North Korea was the main concern cited as Japan's Cabinet approved the report, less than two weeks after the North test-fired a second ICBM that analysts say has a range that could include more of the U.S. mainland, including Los Angeles and Chicago.
The security review came just a week after Itsunori Onodera, who was defense minister in 2012-2014, resumed that job when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revamped his Cabinet after a slew of politically costly scandals.
Onodera told reporters Friday he planned to update Japan's defense guidelines to reflect the threat from the North, suggesting he may seek an offensive missile capability.
"North Korea's missile launches have escalated tensions both in terms of quality and quantity. I would like to study if our current missile defense is sufficient just with the Aegis destroyers and (surface-to-air) PAC 3," said Onodera, who headed a ruling party study in March that called for beefing up Japan's missile response capability.
The ICBM North Korea tested July 30 flew on a highly lofted trajectory and landed about 200 kilometers (120 miles) off Japan's Hokkaido island.
North Korea has been increasing the range, accuracy and versatility of its missiles and diversifying its launch sites and methods. It has conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile launches over the past year alone, exceeding the total of 16 missiles launched over 18 years under former leader Kim Jong Il, the report said.
"North Korea's development of ballistic missiles and its nuclear program are becoming increasingly real and imminent problems for the Asia-Pacific region including Japan, as well as the rest of the world," it said.
The 532-page defense report also raised concerns over China's ongoing assertiveness in air and maritime activity in the regional seas, and raised concerns about the lack of transparency in the country's military buildup with its budget tripling over the past decade.
While North Korea's intentions are mainly to put the mainland U.S. in range, its weapons advancements have furthered Abe's effort to beef up the role of Japan's military and its missile defenses. Joint exercises with its ally the U.S., also, have dramatically increased. The Defense Ministry already plans to acquire upgraded ship-to-air interceptors SM-3 Block IIAs and mobile PAC-3 MSEs, which would double the coverage area of Japan's current defenses.
The defense report was originally meant to be issued Aug. 1, but that was delayed by the Cabinet reshuffle. Days before that, defense minister Tomomi Inada stepped down after admitting that ministry officials had covered up information about dangers faced by Japanese peacekeeping troops while they were stationed in South Sudan.
The rise in regional tensions with both China and North Korea has raised the level of alert in Japan.
Despite Onodera's comments, the ministry's report did not mention the possibility of installing more advanced defense systems such as the land-based Aegis Ashore or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missiles, or THAAD, or allowing Japan's self-defense-only troops to conduct retaliatory attacks as proposed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The THAAD system was deployed last year in South Korea, much to the irritation of China, which has opposed the installation of systems that it suspects could be used to conduct surveillance from outside its borders.
In the East China Sea, China has stepped up activity around Japanese-controlled islands claimed by both countries, expanding to the south and also elsewhere along the Japanese coast, the Defense Ministry report said.
Increased Chinese activity in the East China Sea prompted Japanese air defense troops to scramble against Chinese military aircraft a record 851 times during fiscal 2016, up from 571 times the year before.
"China, particularly when it comes to maritime issues where its interests conflict with others, continues to act in a coercive manner," the report said. It expressed "strong concern" over China's behavior and its impact on regional security.
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