The country's leaders have suddenly woken up to the need for a star wars- style missile defence shield, which would knock out incoming enemy missiles in mid-flight. Despite encouragement from the United States, Tokyo has been reluctant in the past to invest in an anti-missile network for fear of offending China.
The Taepo Dong I missile, which could potentially deliver a chemical, conventional or nuclear warhead anywhere in Japan in less than six minutes, was detected by American military forces who informed Tokyo after two stages of the missile had crashed into the sea.
Japan's Self-Defence Force, which knew about the possibility of the missile test and was in a state of "vigilance", according to the government, was unaware of its launch.
The government's spokesman, Sadaaki Numata, said yesterday: "The first information that we received ... from the US sources, was that there had apparently been a missile launch from the eastern part of Korea to the Sea of Japan."
North Korea's programme to develop the long-range Taepo Dong, alongside its existing arsenal of short to medium-range Scud and Rodong missiles, was well-known to diplomats and military analysts. But yesterday's test came almost literally out of the blue to most Japanese and has provoked anxiety in a people acutely conscious of their geographical isolation at the edge of an unpredictable continent.
"It is crucial that Japan have in place an air-tight defence system so that it is not taken by surprise in the event [of] an attack," the country's best-selling paper, Yomiuri Shimbun, said yesterday in an editorial.
"Japan's people are extremely anxious and I am deeply worried," the Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, said.
"People in Japan should be very alarmed," said Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. "Not just because this unstable regime has the capability to reach Japan, but because the Japanese government didn't know about the launch."
At a special meeting of the Japanese cabinet's security council yesterday morning, the defence minister, Fukashiro Nukaga, was reported to have said that Japan will without delay consider an anti-missile defence system.
The US has been urging Japan to participate in a project to develop the Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) initiative, a futuristic system of early- warning satellites and surface-based rockets that would knock out incoming missiles. But Japan's Defence Agency has made no request for funds for the project, ostensibly to avoid offending the Chinese government, which has long been suspicious of any strengthening of Japanese military capabilities.
However, the expense of the TMD, which could cost upwards of one trillion yen (pounds 4.15bn), may also be a factor in the current economic crisis. An alternative is a cheaper system of independent reconnaissance satellites, which has been discussed since the Seventies.
Japan's leaders were unanimous in expressing their anger. "If the firing was intentional, it's quite fair to say that a war could have broken out," said Yoshiro Mori, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Japanese food aid to victims of North Korea's famine is likely to be put on hold.
The incident also jeopardises an international agreement designed to halt Pyongyang's suspected nuclear weapons programme by providing fuel oil and safe nuclear reactors.
The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Association, the international body overseeing the agreement, of which Japan is a key member, yesterday announced that the supply of funds for the project had been "indefinitely postponed by some member countries".Reuse content