Cooling tensions with North Korea have some Japanese questioning plans to expand their nation’s missile defense.
Japan’s Cabinet, in December, approved plans to acquire two Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems to guard against the then-growing North Korean threat.
Just over six months later, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met with President Donald Trump in Singapore and pledged to end the missile tests and his country’s nuclear weapons program.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has halted annual war games on the peninsula with South Korea.
The improved security situation led Japanese local government officials to question the need for more missile defense when they met with Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera last Friday.
Yamaguchi Governor Tsugumasa Muraoka and Akita Governor Norihisa Satake appeared to balk at plans for Aegis sites in their prefectures in light of current events.
“[The need for Aegis Ashore] is extremely questionable,” an Akita prefectural official said.
Onodera told reporters prior to meeting the governors that while recent events have shown progress, North Korea still has the weaponry to strike Japan.
“We recognize that the threat posed by North has not changed,” Onodera said.
Aegis Ashore is not only capable of defending Japan from ballistic missiles but also against cruise missiles, he said.
“We are advancing plans for Aegis Ashore out of the thought that it will contribute to the defense of Japan,” he said.
Japan already has a two-stage missile defense system, including Aegis-equipped ships and land-based Patriot batteries but the government hopes Aegis Ashore will strengthen defenders’ ability to intercept incoming missiles.
Japan is also indirectly protected by American missile defense.
The U.S. Navy has Aegis ballistic-missile defense systems on several ships homeported in Yokosuka, Japan, including the USS Milius, USS Benfold and USS Barry.
The systems allow the Navy to shoot down short-range ballistic missiles within the atmosphere, and short- to intermediate-range missiles above the atmosphere, according to the Navy.
At their meeting with the defense minister, the Japanese prefectural governors passed on residents’ concerns about the deployment of Aegis Ashore.
Some worry about possible health impact from radar and fear that the system could be a target, according to a Yamaguchi government official.
“We asked the Japanese government to continue explaining,” he said.
Akita residents are particularly concerned because there are houses just outside the fence of the Araya training area, which has been earmarked as an Aegis site, according to local officials.
Both prefectural governors said there is little information and details about Aegis Ashore so they expect to hear more from the Defense Ministry.
Onodera and his staff have promised to investigate impact that the Aegis systems may have and share the results.
“We do not think that they will be convinced with explanations over just once or twice, so we aim to provide detailed explanations repeatedly,” Onodera said after meeting with Muraoka.
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