UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear, Missile Defense

North Korea’s Missiles and the US-NK Summit

In April 2018, shortly before last June’s summit with President Trump, North Korea announced it was discontinuing its flight testing of ballistic missiles. For over a year now, it has not conducted any missile tests.

This represents a big change. In the five years 2013 to 2017, North Korea launched more than 80 flight tests of 10 different missiles, or an average of 16 flight tests per year. In 2017 alone, it launched 20 tests of seven types of missiles, including the successful launch of two different long-range missiles.

(Source: U.S. govt.)

That testing led to big advances in its missile program.

As of 2015 the longest range missile it had successfully tested was the Nodong, with an estimated range of about 1,300 km (800 miles). In November 2017 it successfully tested an intercontinental-range missile with a range ten times that long—13,000 km (8,000 miles)—enough to reach most or all of the United States.

How Important is a Ban on Flight Testing

We know a lot about North Korea’s missile flight tests over the years because you can’t hide a missile fired through the atmosphere. The United States has satellite sensors and radars that detect and track those tests essentially anywhere in the world.

Missile flight testing is needed for several reasons:

  1. To develop new missiles
  2. To proof-test and determine the reliability of missiles that are being built
  3. To train soldiers to use missiles in combat.

Stopping flight testing limits all three of these.

Countries typically test a new missile dozens of times before deploying it. Even though North Korea had one successful launch of its Hwasong-15 ICBM in late 2017, it has little idea whether a second test would be successful. These are very complicated mechanical systems and you need repeated testing to discover the possible failure modes and understand their probabilities.

For a missile to be militarily useful, you want to know how reliable it is. And you want to understand how likely it is to blow up on the launch pad before you decide to put a nuclear warhead on it.

In addition to this, North Korea hasn’t demonstrated a working reentry heat shield on a long-range trajectory. As long as it’s willing to accept low accuracy—which it would be if it plans to target large cities—developing a working heat shield doesn’t require advanced technology. North Korea should be able to solve this problem with time, but it is unlikely to consider these missiles militarily useful without actually demonstrating the technology on a flight test. A ban on testing keeps it from doing that.

While some press reports have said that following its one successful flight test of its Hwasong-15 ICBM, North Korea is working to mass produce it, I don’t believe they would do that. Preventing further flight tests would prevent this missile from becoming militarily useful. It would also limit operational training of military troops with its missiles.

So preserving North Korea’s ban on flight tests is an important security measure. And as noted above, a ban on flight testing has the advantage that it is completely verifiable with existing sensors.

What Does the Current Test Ban Cover?

When Kim announced the end of flight tests in April 2018, he said:

“no nuclear tests and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now. … We will discontinue nuclear tests and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire from April 21.”

So while North Korea has not flight tested any missiles in the past 15 months, it only announced it would stop testing long-range missiles—those with ranges longer than 5,500 km (3,500 miles). That includes the Hwasong-14 and 15 missiles.

A ban on testing long-range missiles would leave North Korea the option of continuing to develop and test intermediate and shorter range missiles. That includes the Hwasong-12, which may be able to reach US military bases in Guam. Banning only long-range flight tests would also allow North Korea to train soldiers with its existing shorter range missiles, which can reach targets in South Korea and Japan.

A key goal of the upcoming summit and future US-North Korean negotiations should be to formalize the testing ban, to make it permanent, and to extend it to cover shorter range missiles. The United States should also press for a ban on engine tests, and make clear the flight test ban includes satellite launches.

North Korea has not yet taken irreversible steps toward ending its missile program. But it has taken meaningful steps that would have been unthinkable as recently as 2017, and that suggests an openness to further steps that would be more meaningful. That would significantly advance security interests of the United States and its allies in the region.

Achieving these steps is likely to require a phased step-by-step process. There are a set of potential steps the United States could take as part of the negotiations. These include discussions of a peace treaty or new security arrangement in the region, scaling back military exercises that the North sees as threatening, and selective easing of sanctions.

A verified ban on flight testing, of course, is just a step. The ultimate goal should be to stop further missile development and production at all levels, and to eliminate existing missiles—and that is what the United States should be working for. But that will require North Korea to feel secure enough to agree to these steps, which would include intrusive verification measures. That is not going to happen overnight and will require reciprocal steps by the United States.

It’s worth noting that the United States has had a lot of hands-on experience with verifying the elimination and non-production of missiles over the past 30 years through the verification measures of the INF Treaty, which it recently announced it was leaving.

What about Reports that North Korea is Continuing to Build Up its Missile Sites?

North Korea has taken several steps that are consistent with its statement about discontinuing nuclear and missile tests. In May 2018 it destroyed the entrances and some of the tunnels at its nuclear test site. In July it dismantled some facilities at one of its main missile test sites. While these steps were done without international inspectors present and could be reversed, they are interesting steps that are consistent with a willingness to end testing.

More recently there have been press reports of satellite images that show Korean missile bases that had not been publicly identified earlier, and show that North Korea has been continuing its ongoing work at some of these sites. These send a different message.

But these reports shouldn’t derail negotiations. It’s useful to have more information about these sites as part of the public discussion, but it’s important to recognize that these “secret” sites have long been known and are being monitored by US intelligence.

Moreover, there is nothing in the negotiations so far that has obligated Pyongyang to stop work on these bases or dismantle them. Working to get agreement on such steps is an important goal for the upcoming summit. If the United States sees those steps as important, it should decide what it is willing to put on the table to get them.

Don’t Scapegoat China for Killing the INF Treaty. Ask it to Join.

September 23, 2016: Chinese UN Representative Liu Jieyi votes in favor of a UN Security Council resolution on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) urging all parties to push for the treaty’s entry into force.

The Trump administration recently announced it intends to walk away from an important agreement that reduces the risk of nuclear war—the INF Treaty. US officials said concerns about China were an important factor in deciding to scrap a nuclear arms control pact intended to last in perpetuity. But there is no evidence the Trump administration consulted Chinese leaders about its plans to withdraw or the concerns that supposedly made it necessary.

The Soviet Union and the United States negotiated the bilateral agreement in the mid-1980s during an especially tense period when both sides were upgrading their immense nuclear arsenals. Wide-spread public protests in Europe and the United States helped push both governments to agree to eliminate at least one class of weapons: ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 miles.

Contemporary US critics of that agreement, including US National Security Advisor John Bolton, argue the United States must quit the treaty because China is not subject to the same restriction. That’s a dubious justification for tearing up the treaty, although persuading China to join has obvious value. Unfortunately, getting Chinese leaders to the negotiating table is a tough sell when, from their perspective, the entire US defense and foreign policy establishment is chomping at the bit to fight a new Cold War in Asia. But it’s only impossible if, like Mr. Bolton, you never really bother to try.

There is good reason to believe China is not opposed to arms control negotiations or unwilling to make significant concessions to arrive at an equitable agreement.

The Peril and the Hope

Even before atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of the scientists and a few of the politicians who understood the long-term implications sought to impose international controls. They recognized these weapons were different. As horrible as the last war had been, a war fought with nuclear weapons would be far worse. No nation or coalition of nations could win such a war. The entire planet might become inhabitable. Human civilization and most of the living things on earth could perish, forever.

China came late to the nuclear table but the impact of the weapons on the scientists who developed them was similar. Hu Side, a former director of China’s nuclear weapons lab, wrote, “I’ve seen the mushroom clouds rise, felt the earth and mountain massifs shake and experienced the shock of the tremendous energy released by a nuclear explosion. It is precisely because of these experiences that I particularly understand why national decision-makers determined our country’s nuclear weapons were a defensive measure for strategic deterrence.” It may lack the poetry of Robert Oppenheimer‘s “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” but the sentiment is the same. Nuclear weapons are too powerful to be used to fight a war.

Until the late 1990s the nuclear arms race and efforts to stop it grew in tandem. Scientists rallied the public to restrain the self-destructive behavior of military and political leaders addicted to antiquated approaches to war and peace. But over the last thirty years the will to control the nuclear arms race has weakened while the addiction to antiquity has grown much stronger. This is especially true in US-China relations, where the most influential idea guiding US officials is “the Thucydides trap” and Chinese leaders propagandize “the Great Chinese Renaissance.”

The Beginning of the End

Ironically, international nuclear arms control began to die when China finally embraced it. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was the first international nuclear arms control accord China helped to negotiate. For decades, the Chinese Communist Party viewed nuclear arms control as vehicle for preserving the advantages of the Soviet Union and the United States. China lagged far behind in the nuclear arms race. By the time the negotiations reached their final stage China had conducted 47 nuclear tests and possessed several hundred nuclear warheads.  The United States had conducted 1067 tests and possessed approximately 15,000 nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, China signed the treaty.

After the Clinton administration failed to convince the US Senate to ratify the CTBT, progress in international nuclear arms control ground to a halt. Negotiations on a treaty to ban the production of the materials used to make nuclear warheads were cut short. The United Nations Conference on Disarmament (UNCD) became paralyzed; unable to reach a consensus on how to start negotiations on any arms control agreement.

The Bush administration made things exponentially worse when it unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The 1972 agreement was based on the common sense notion that both the United States and the Soviet Union would be safer if they limited missile defenses so that neither side would feel compelled to build new nuclear-armed missiles to overwhelm those defenses.

President Obama gave a nice speech in Prague and his administration managed to preserve the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiated in 1991. But in order to get this New START agreement ratified Obama promised the Senate he would allow them to spend more than a trillion dollars to upgrade the entire US nuclear arsenal. And he steadfastly refused to even discuss a suggestion Chinese arms controllers felt was important: beginning talks in the UNCD on a new international agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space.

China does not look at nuclear arms control in isolation. Some forms of conventional weapons technology, like those involved in missile defenses, anti-satellite weapons and long-range conventional precision strike weapons impact Chinese decisions about the size and composition of its nuclear arsenal.

Back from the Brink

The most important thing about all forms of international arms control negotiations is that they bring adversaries together to talk. Dialogue builds trust. Trust that the other side isn’t trying to trick you into agreeing to something to gain an advantage. Trust that the other side respects you and is seeking an equitable agreement that reduces anxiety and the risk of war.

China has a small number of nuclear-armed ground-based intermediate range missiles that would fall under the original INF Treaty limits. But it also has a much larger number of conventionally armed missiles in this class that seem to be the major concern of US advocates of withdrawing from the treaty. Figuring out how to negotiate an expanded INF Treaty that would require China to dismantle them would introduce a number of new and difficult issues to resolve, but it could also lead to some very productive conversations on how to build trust and preserve the peace in East Asia.

Sadly, I suspect US advocates of killing the INF Treaty have no intention to talk to China about joining it, but if the United States wanted to open negotiations China is likely to put forward a few conditions.

First and foremost, the discussion on intermediate-range missiles would have to take place in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament. China must not be the only target of concern. Most if not all of the other nations that possess this class of weapon would have to be included. Chinese leaders prefer international rather than bilateral or multilateral forums for arms control negotiations. It’s not an unreasonable preference, and it predisposes Chinese negotiators to accept the general principle that restrictions should apply to everyone.

Unlocking the UNCD will be difficult because decisions are made by consensus—a norm for negotiations many cultures prefer. Consensus may require discussion of other arms control issues. Recent history suggests preserving peace in outer space may be one of them. Agreeing to begin discussions does not commit the United States to a particular outcome. It just creates an opportunity to talk. So broadening the agenda to satisfy all of the attending parties is not unreasonable either.

Finally, international arms control negotiations are not an apples-for-apples, oranges-for-oranges kind of thing. They’re an apples-for-my-pick-from-the entire-produce-aisle sort of thing. Different countries choose to rely on different weapons for all kinds of reasons, like geography. Because of its huge land mass and its concerns about the assemblage of conventional US forces on its periphery, China sees conventionally armed ground-based intermediate range missiles as an especially effective countermeasure. It’s invested decades of effort and substantial financial and technical resources in developing and deploying those missiles. Asking China to give them up is going to cost the United States something in return.

If the United States were serious about wanting China to join the INF Treaty, it would be talking with Chinese arms controllers about changes the United States might be willing to make in exchange for surrendering what Chinese military planners see as one of their most valuable military capabilities. There is no indication such a discussion has ever taken place. Until it does, China cannot be blamed for the US decision to kill the INF Treaty.



China and North Korea: A Viewer’s Guide

US analysts and officials often refer to North Korea as China’s ally, as if it were a diplomatic or military asset. History suggests it’s more like a rock around China’s neck. Chinese President Xi Jinping may find it too heavy to bear.

Or, he may succeed in solving one of the most intractable security problems in East Asia. The denuclearization of North Korea is the UN benchmark both Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to meet. They reiterated that promise in their most recent get together in Beijing earlier this month.

Keeping it will require the two of them to untangle the mess that started when Kim’s grandfather, defying the unequivocally expressed wishes of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong, crossed the 38th parallel—the dividing line between North and South Korea—and tried to reunify his country by force. Getting rid of the weapons will require eliminating the insecurities, and ambitions, that drove North Korea to build them in the first place.

Blind Spots

One of the weaknesses of a political regime that punishes scholars who look into sensitive subjects is that it becomes much harder for decision-makers to distinguish fact from fiction. Fortunately, the 1950s are far enough in the past that, for the moment, inquiring Chinese minds have more freedom to investigate the origins of the relationship between communist China and North Korea.

Based on the content of an October 2010 exposition from then Vice-Chairman Xi on the 60th anniversary of what the CCP calls the “War to Resist America and Help Korea,” he’s got a lot to learn.

The anniversary speech was Xi’s coming out party and it contains some whoppers. The most important, by far, is that North Korea asked Communist China to enter the war. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Thanks to a marvelously detailed exploration of Chinese and Soviet archives by China’s preeminent chronicler of the period, we now know that Kim’s grandfather did everything he could to keep China behind the front lines and that Mao sent in Chinese forces to take over the fight without Kim’s consent.

We also know that Mao did not want his North Korean comrade to attack the south in the first place. He thought Kim was impatient, over confident and that he would fail. Mao was right, and China paid an enormous military and diplomatic cost to save Kim’s government and restore the status quo ante.

Xi’s speech was all bluster and glory: an ode to pyrrhic victory over the Americans. It glossed over China’s losses and failed to consider the lessons that might be learned from an unnecessary war that solved nothing. Korea is still divided and that remains the root cause of the North’s suffering and the South’s anxiety.

Technically, China can say it won the war. It entered after the United States ignored repeated Chinese warnings not to cross the 38th parallel. General MacArthur convinced President Truman the warnings were a bluff.  China eventually left after the original dividing line was firmly secured. But it is hard to see what good can come from remembering the war that way.

Perhaps the speech was catering to the old Chinese soldiers who had yet to fade away. My father-in-law was one of them and I am certain he deeply appreciated the Party’s recognition of the risks he took in Korea on behalf of his country. Maybe it wasn’t an appropriate moment for Xi to admit it was all for nothing and a consequence of reckless North Korean ambition.

Xi prohibited the publication of a book that discussed those mistakes. But he also had the authors, who published it in Hong Kong and New York instead, send multiple copies of the original manuscript to the senior leadership.

That’s an encouraging sign.

State of Play

After Mao died and his successors championed pragmatism over ideology, establishing relations with a prosperous South Korea became more important than preserving fidelity with the North. Peking University was flooded with South Korean students, and South Korean money, when I was running educational exchange programs there in the 1990s. South Korean pop culture spread through Chinese youth like a wildfire. The impact remains substantial today.

North Korea became an afterthought. To the extent ordinary Chinese thought about it at all the North was an embarrassing reminder of what communist China used to be. The CCP leadership maintained a perfunctory courtesy towards the North Korean regime, but left the management of its ill behavior, including its pursuit of nuclear weapons, to the United States.

Successive Chinese governments sought to assist US efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as long as they did not destabilize the regime. China tempered US-led efforts to put pressure on North Korea through international sanctions by insisting a baseline level of aid and trade remain open. It hosted formal negotiations and served as a conduit for dialog. But there was never the same sense of urgency about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as there was in the United States.

US analysts and officials routinely accuse their Chinese counterparts of acting in bad faith for not putting more pressure on North Korea with tighter restrictions on the substantial aid and trade that flowed through China. Bad faith implies malign intent. The accusations are understandable given the long and bitter legacy of the Korean War. But there’s another less ominous way to look at China’s approach to the problem.

A team of Japanese defense analysts put their finger on it in a secret report on Japan’s nuclear weapons options submitted prior to Japan’s accession to the permanent extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995.

“Although North Korea’s nuclear development is like a dagger stuck to China’s throat, it has the same logical justification of China’s own nuclear development. China cannot condemn it.”

The justification was self-defense, which the authors did not accept as legitimate. Neither does the NPT, which requires all nations to denuclearize, including the United States.

Moreover, when China tested its first nuclear device in 1964 it was as much of an international pariah as North Korea is today. Mao, like Kim Jong-un, was described as a sadistic madman. Isolation, sanctions and pressure made China even more determined to develop nuclear weapons. Why would North Korea respond differently?

China’s own experience suggested the US effort to keep tightening sanctions and ratcheting up pressure would only make things worse. China’s approach for most of the last several decades could be seen as an effort to muddle through while trying to prevent a crisis that could lead to war.

Enter Xi Jinping

Economic data on North Korea is notoriously unreliable but Xi’s anniversary speech on the Korean War appears to have capped a year of explosive growth in trade between China and the North. The increase may have been meant to compensate for new sanctions imposed after North Korea sank a South Korean warship and shelled a South Korean island. Chinese colleagues consistently argue that a reformed and developing North Korean economy would make the security problem less acute. Holding out that possibility may be key to Xi’s approach to managing North Korea.

But is that enough to satisfy its leaders? The uptick in trade was followed by an uptick in diplomacy. But in 2014 North Korea accelerated its efforts to demonstrate a plausible capability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. Severe UN sanctions and flamboyant US military threats failed to slow them down.

In his 2018 New Year’s address Kim Jong-un told the world he believed North Korea finally succeeded, and that he was shifting his focus to economic development. He froze testing, embraced South Korea’s effort to take the lead in a new round of diplomacy and, for the first time, met with the leaders of the United States and China.

Kim met with President Trump once. He met with Xi Jinping four times in one year after a long hiatus in contact between the leaders of the two communist nations. Some observers opined that Xi wants to make sure Kim doesn’t cut a deal with South Korea and the United States that closes China out. Others think Xi is pushing a recalcitrant Kim to negotiate in good faith.

Sadly, since it took us almost sixty years to learn what really happened between Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung, it will probably take us just as long to learn what’s happening now between Xi Jinping and his grandson.

What to Look for in the Months Ahead

US experts are searching for a magic package of security assurances that will entice Kim to give up, within a relatively short period of time, a nuclear capability North Korea spent decades working to acquire, at great cost and great risk. At the same time these experts want to preserve indefinitely an overwhelming allied military superiority that can annihilate North Korea with minimal risk to South Korea, Japan and the United States. It is hard to imagine how a conversation premised on achieving those two contradictory objectives does anything other than aggravate mutual mistrust.

Chinese experts seem to be encouraging the United States to take a longer view that does not insist on the immediate denuclearization of North Korea and allows it to develop its economy to a point where the regime no longer appears as threatening to its neighbors as it does now. They believe this is the trajectory China followed and that North Korea can reform itself in the same way. It is hard to imagine how the United States, Japan and South Korea would be willing to be so patient, especially as they watch with concern how economic development improves Chinese military capabilities that are now being wielded by an ambitious Chinese ideologue.

Korean experts are hopeful they can finally settle things themselves. The root of the problem is a divided Korea. If Kim Jong-un is as impatient as his grandfather, and the North still imagines it can compel unification on its terms because it now has nuclear weapons, it is hard to see how the South can continue to engage the North constructively. But if the grandson’s ambitions are more reasonable, if he’s just looking for an honorable way out of this decades-old dilemma, then why not give the two Koreas enough time and negotiating room to find it?

The Trump administration, because of what can charitably be called a lack of sufficient resources, may provide that time and space by default.

The generally healthy relationship China has cultivated with South Korea since the 1990s suggests Xi may let President Moon Jae-in remain in the driver’s seat. But a dramatic turn of events in Korea, for good or ill, could create some drama inside China as well.

The Xi administration elevates above all else the mercurial persona of its leader, who has re-emphasized communist orthodoxy to the point where domestic critics (and there are many) lament that as North Korea is becoming more like China, China is becoming more like North Korea. The pomp, pageantry and propaganda attending the summits between the two are an unflattering reminder of Xi’s oppressive dogmatism.

The upcoming year could be an inconvenient time for unpleasant political memories. 2019 marks the hundredth anniversary of the May 4th Movement, the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre and the seventieth anniversary of communist liberation in 1949. Any one of them could give rise to uncomfortable questions about where Xi is taking the country.

Moon could become another Mandela or an enviable icon of Asian democracy with an appeal that rivals K-Pop. Or Xi could threaten to go to war with the United States, as he did during a tense period in August of 2017. Putting Chinese peace and prosperity on the line for the same reasons Mao did in the 1950s may not go down so well during a period pregnant with opportunities to call attention to the Chinese Communist Party’s mistakes.

For those of us watching from the cheap seats, there’s a lot of interlocking storylines to follow.


The Long-Overdue Missile Defense Review Expected (Again) This Week

Where’s the Trump administration’s hugely delayed Missile Defense Review? The latest rumor is that it will be released this coming Thursday, and that seems plausible (but I wouldn’t hold your breath).

The review was congressionally mandated in the FY17 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and was originally expected in late 2017. Then it was expected around the February 2018 release of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. After that, it was expected in May. Now, it is more than a year late, and what it says remains a mystery.

When will we see it?

Delayed again? Photo by Roey Ahram, 2011.

We’ve been told that an initial version, shepherded by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Rob Soofer, was completed and briefed to some members of Congress in late 2017. But when Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood took office in January 2018, he required an extensive rewrite with a much more aggressive approach. The Trump administration’s diplomatic overtures and warming relations with North Korea became a second complication. Releasing a document that focused on the increasing threat resulting from successful North Korean long-range missile tests could undermine that budding relationship.

As far back as October 2018, officials publicly stated that the review was completed, but the Pentagon and the White House have been unable to agree to release it. Most recently, it was rumored that the Pentagon wanted to release it when then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December 2018, but the White House nixed that idea for reasons unknown. (We also know that many Hill staff have not been briefed on the current version and are as in the dark as we are.)

What’s in a title?

The Obama administration completed its Ballistic Missile Defense Review in February 2010. The current effort is meant to be more expansive. Congress has asked for a review of US capability, policy, and strategy to defeat missiles, including “left of launch” options that would stop missiles from being developed or launched in the first place, as well as passive and active, kinetic and non-kinetic measures. This “missile defeat” policy would cover not only ballistic missiles but also is mandated by Congress to cover cruise missile and maneuvering hypersonic missiles. So the term “ballistic” will almost certainly be dropped and “defense” will probably become “defeat.”

What will it say?

The Missile Defense Review likely will call for expanding current theater and strategic ballistic-missile defense systems and developing new systems to defend against such threats. It may even endorse developing new systems to defend against new classes of threats. We recently posted a briefing paper giving some background and highlighting what we will be looking for when it’s released. Take a look.

The review is late, but even without a new high-level mandate the FY19 budget request already significantly increased funding for existing missile defense systems. Congress also has gotten ahead of the administration and added requirements in the FY19 NDAA for the Pentagon to scope and develop new systems, including space-based missile defenses and drone-based interceptors.

Whether or not the missile defense review appears, the upcoming defense budget request will reveal Trump’s priorities in these areas. Indeed, the then-Deputy (now Acting) Secretary of Defense Jack Shanahan stated back in October that, even if it is not published, the Missile Defense Review will inform the Trump administration’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request that is supposed to be released in early February.

However, there will be one new factor whether or not the review is released: With new Democratic leadership in the House, the administration is likely to face much more skepticism than it did in recent years. The Pentagon should not expect blank checks (or wild ideas for space-based defenses) going forward.

Okinawa’s Burden

The author with Gov. Masahide Ota in his office at the Okinawa Peace Research Institute in April, 2017

China isn’t the only country tearing up precious coral reefs to build new military outposts in the Pacific. Just before the new year holiday, in order to fulfill obligations to the US military, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began covering the coral reefs of Henoko Bay with landfill.

It’s the latest move in a decades old struggle between the people of Okinawa, who don’t want another US military base on their tiny island, and the central government of Japan, which agreed to construct the massive new Henoko facility under the terms of a controversial agreement with the United States. US military bases already occupy nearly a quarter of the 466 sq. mi island, which is home to approximately 1.5 million people. Three quarters of all US military bases in Japan and over half of the US military personnel stationed in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa, which accounts for less than 1% of Japan’s total land mass. 

Legacy of US Military Occupation

The huge US military footprint in Okinawa is a product of post-war US-Japan relations. US forces took the island in the closing months of World War II in one of the most gruesome and costly battles of the Pacific war. Of the estimated 200,000 people killed during twelve weeks of fighting between US and Japanese forces, 120,000 were Okinawan civilians, many of whom were pressed into military service or encouraged to commit suicide by a depleted Japanese military that knew it was on the verge of defeat. Imperial officials did not expect to hold the island, but sought to fight a costly war of attrition that would discourage a US invasion of Japan’s main islands. The strategy worked. The horrific consequences of the Battle of Okinawa influenced President Truman’s deliberations about the potential costs of invading Japan.

The perception that Tokyo sacrificed Okinawans to spare the Japanese continues to define the island’s relationship with the rest of Japan. In a conversation in his office in Naha, the revered former governor of Okinawa, Masahide Ota, a survivor of the battle, told me the people of the island were far less angry at the invading American soldiers than they were at the Japanese officials who condemned them to senseless death.

Ota also noted that in the early days of the US occupation many Okinawans hoped the United States would return at least some of the autonomy they lost when Imperial Japan annexed the island in 1879. Unfortunately, according to Ota, the US occupation government showed little regard for Okinawan rights.

The new post-war Japanese government imposed limitations on US military activity in the main islands, including prohibitions on bringing US nuclear weapons into Japan. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff responded by concentrating US forces, including US nuclear forces, in Okinawa. The chiefs sought to hold on to the island indefinitely in order to preserve their freedom of action, and US nuclear deterrence, in the Pacific. It took enormous pressure from the Japanese public to force political leaders in Tokyo and Washington to negotiate an agreement that returned sovereign control of Okinawa to Japan in 1972.

Ever since, the people of Okinawa and their elected representatives have been fighting with the government in Tokyo to recover at least some of the land appropriated by the US military. They argue that if these US bases are really necessary to defend Japan–a claim many Okinawans doubt–then the burden of hosting them should not fall so heavily on the people of Okinawa. At the very least, any new US military facilities, like the new construction at Henoko, should not be built in Okinawa.

Glimmer of Hope

A new Japanese government, led by a new Japanese political party, assumed office in the fall of 2009. For the first and only time since the end of World War II, a set of Japanese leaders from a political party other than the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won control of the government at the polls. They campaigned on the promise of establishing a more balanced relationship with the United States that would allow Tokyo to exercise greater independence over Japan’s foreign and military policy. Yukio Hatoyama, who led the party to victory and became its first prime minister, promised to renegotiate the controversial agreement over the new US military facility in Okinawa. Stopping construction of the new US base was a central issue during the campaign.

US Asia experts in the Obama administration found the Hatoyama government’s desire for a more balanced relationship “unwelcome” and “disturbing.”  Defense Secretary Robert Gates refused to dine with the new prime minister during a trip to Tokyo shortly after the election. President Obama refused to renegotiate the base agreement. Relentless US criticism of Hatoyama’s government, and its failure to deliver on a key campaign promise, contributed to his decision to resign less than a year after his historic election.

Despite this setback the people of Okinawa continued to try to stop the base. The provincial government used legal and administrative regulations to prevent construction. Demonstrators, many of them elderly villagers, impeded progress by lying down in front of massive earth moving vehicles. But the Abe government, under pressure from the US military, used highly questionable interpretations of the law to override the legal and administrative prohibitions enacted by the provincial government. The prime minister replaced local police with rent-a-cops from other regions of Japan who were more willing to beat the elderly demonstrators protesting outside the base. Abe also used a new national security law and increased control of the Japanese press to limit and shape reporting on the base issue.

Given the increasingly formidable obstacles at home,  Okinawan governmental and non-governmental organizations turned to the international community for support. They made their case to block the base and invalidate the US-Japan military agreements that mandate its completion to special rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council. They also enlisted the support of US environmental organizations to call attention to the harmful impacts of the construction in Henoko Bay and filed suit against the US Department of Defense to try to stop construction.

Most recently, Okinawan heritage groups in the United States organized a series of demonstrations and petitioned the White House in an effort to alert US lawmakers to an upcoming referendum meant to demonstrate the extent of local opposition to the new base. The hope is that a new and more progressive US Congress might take action in support of Okinawan democratic rights to determine their own fate and preserve Okinawa’s environment.

Uphill Struggle

US lawmakers routinely pass resolutions and enact laws to support the human rights of various aggrieved populations around the world, but they’ve been conspicuously quiet on the question of Okinawa. Last year I accompanied former primer minister Hatoyama as he pleaded with several powerful members of the House and the Senate to take action to stop the base. Most responded to his entreaties with mild surprise or polite indifference. Members of Congress with an interest in US Asia policy who take the time to travel to Japan routinely confine their fact finding to meetings with the defense and foreign policy officials in Tokyo who are pushing the base construction forward.

Those same Japanese officials praised a Trump administration nuclear and defense posture that may impose an even a greater burden on the people of Okinawa. Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba told a US congressional commission that preparing to re-deploy US nuclear weapons in Okinawa is a reasonable next step. US advocates of abrogating the INF Treaty are discussing deploying US land-based intermediate range missiles on the island. Okinawan hopes to shoulder less of the burden of the US military presence in the Pacific need to overcome not only the intransigence of Abe’s LDP, but a new push by US defense and foreign policy professionals to build up US forces in the region.