TT-907 (Tourism Edition) -- Using Missiles, Will Kim Jong-Un Gatecrash the Tokyo Olympics?

* * * * * * * * TERRIE'S (TOURISM) TAKE - BY TERRIE LLOYD * * * * * *
A bi-weekly focused look at the tourism sector in Japan, by Terrie Lloyd, a long-term technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan.

Tourism Sector Edition Sunday, July 30 2017, Issue No. 907

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+++ Using Missiles, Will Kim Jong-Un Gatecrash the Tokyo Olympics?

The last couple of months have been good ones for North Korea, in that its leader Kim Jong-Un has correctly read the reactions of the region's great powers. Given that he is crazy like a fox it's hard to say how he thinks things will eventually play out, but for the time being he has everyone's attention. With this latest Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) test, he is raising the stakes and going from being an irrelevant annoyance to the U.S. who was only capable of hitting parts of Japan, to now being a major strategic threat. Donald Trump has already said that he would not allow North Korea to gain nuclear-capable ICBMs, but he may have to change his mind once he properly understands the options.

Earlier this week a San Francisco Chronicle stated, lifting from a Robert Oppenheimer quote some years ago, "...the current situation is like putting two scorpions in a bottle" - meaning a belligerent Kim and an aggressive Trump, both looking for a public diversion. Less fortunately for those of us here in Japan, the Chronicle then goes on to say that, rather than any preemptive attack by North Korea on California, it's more likely to target Japan or South Korea..." Hmmm, this kind of media speculation is not exactly conducive to Japan Inbound tourism, especially if the war of words escalates.

Indeed, for the first time ever, several months ago (in April, 2017) we had a travel agency client ask us if the North Korean situation is anything that they should be worried about. They had been watching news reports of Trump saying that he was sending an "Armada" to Korean waters, to send a "powerful signal to North Korea". Much to the embarrassment of those managing allied relations in this area, it turned out that Trump had his geography mixed up and the USS Carl Vinson was actually 3,500 miles away in the Indian Ocean doing exercises with the Australians. The episode was mocked internationally and may be one more reason why this time around Trump may seek a more substantive response.

So what kind of substantive response might that be and what does it mean to those of us in Japan? The Atlantic magazine posted a very thorough analysis of what options are open to Trump. These basically range from a surprise attack wiping out the military capability of North Korea, with substantial collateral damage to South Korea and Japan as Kim's forces unleash the many chemical weapons stockpiled all over the country, through to doing nothing. In between, the Atlantic offered two more options: a limited attack to serve as a warning to Kim, a highly risky strategy if you ask me, and assassinating him. The article is a long but interesting read. [Atlantic analysis]

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But what strikes me about all of these options is how put both South Korea and Japan in harm's way, and particularly disturbing is the fact that if Kim did target Japan his forces would focus on American bases across the country first, meaning that most major entry points to Japan would be hit. [Known U.S. armed forces bases locations in Japan]

I'm not expecting Kim to risk Armageddon and his family legacy, and in the long run Trump will probably chose to follow the same path as Obama and Bush before him, which is to ignore the posturing and the threat. However, there is no doubt that Kim is gaining the ability to shake the tree whenever he feels like, and will probably be tempted to do so. The most obvious opportunity will be the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. If we were Kim, making some threats prior to the Olympics would cause Tokyo incalculable financial and political damage. So, apart from gaining some enjoyment watching the Japanese squirm, it would be a great way for him to extract billions in protection payments.

As psychologists well know, it's the fear of a threat more than the threat itself which causes extreme reactions. And interestingly, recent research has found that humans become most anxious about novel (newly experienced) threats in particular. Earthquakes? Well Japan has them all the time, so while they are dangerous, everyone knows that the Japanese are great structural engineers and have mitigated that threat sufficiently that 27m foreign tourists will still travel here this year. Radiation on the other hand, was in 2011 rather novel, and given that it is an invisible killer and easily spread by the weather, it was the major international scare story that year.

For this reason, of course, in 2012 Japan had the biggest drop in inbound tourists in 62 years.

U.S. media speculation about nuclear and VX gas threats from North Korea may not find much credence here in Japan, although such news is reported, and most Japanese trust in Fate enough to get on with their lives. What else can they do? They live here. But for others in SE Asia and China there is a sensitivity to perceived threats that directs the flow of travel significantly. We saw this during the avian flu (SARS) crisis in 2003 and then with Fukushima in 2011. The foreign media harped on about the threat, levels of alarm in Asia quickly rose, and people simply cancelled their trips.

What is the solution? Under normal circumstances I think that the government would prefer to try and quietly bribe Kim to leave the country alone while working on more effective defensive measures. For example, allowing cash transfers from Pachinko parlors to resume. However, since Japan is also greatly influenced by U.S. military thinking, and right now Trump and his team are driving that thinking, there seems to be a shift in stance towards taking more direct action. That's scary to say the least. Luckily the media in Asia haven't latched on to this yet.

There is one other country in the world that is already threatened by missiles every day and yet which is able to maintain a semi-normal existence. That country is Israel. Their solution was to create the Iron Dome missile shield, which although not perfect is capable of shooting down 90% of incoming missiles to a range of 70km, and at a cost of "just" US$100,000 per countermeasure launch (requires two missiles). Of course an ICBM is much harder than a home-made missile to bring down, and it needs much greater sophistication in terms of both detection and shoot-down. Ideally an ICBM needs to be detected shortly after launch and to be intercepted at its slowest point, just as it passes its apogee. There are currently four systems that could be thrown at the ICBM to destroy, these being THAAD (used in South Korea), Patriot PAC-3 (used here), Aegis (used by the U.S. and Japanese navies), and GMD.

Of these, only the GMD system is designed specifically to intercept ICBMs. This US$40bn system has been plagued with patchy test results, but the U.S. military finally conducted a very convincing kill test in March this year, which shows that GMD may be capable after all.

In any case, detection is the first part of the solution, and Japan is already quite capable of putting up geo-stationary satellites, having launched their first geo-stationary weather satellite in 1978. In January of this year (2017) they launched their first dedicated military satellite, and while the main emphasis of that unit was communications, I'm pretty sure onboard missile detection focusing on North Korea would have been part of the specification.

Given that North Korea has decided to ante up the stakes, Japan doesn't really seem to have that many options after all. Therefore, I would not be surprised to see the Abe government invest massively in some kind of protective missile dome for Japan. Then if Kim did decide to threaten the country nearer the Olympics so as to squeeze out some cash, the Japanese government could then reveal their hand and conduct missile shield tests to show it was capable of protecting itself. In doing so, they would also go a long way in reassuring skittish visitors that the country is safe enough to visit.

But it would certainly be a lot cheaper to simply bow down and pray to the gods a bit harder - so I wouldn't rule that out either. What would they pray for? That Kim falls ill from heart disease, that President Trump decides discretion is the best part of valor, and that the tourists keep coming in greater numbers.

...The information janitors/

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