In a landmark move, Japan, the United States, and South Korea joined forces to share radar information for the first time in response to North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launch on January 14.
The collaborative effort comes amidst escalating concerns over Pyongyang’s rapid advancements in ballistic missile technologies, signaling a united front against the growing regional threat.
The trilateral collaboration aimed to bolster countermeasures against North Korea’s missile capabilities, resulting in the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) gaining the ability to track the missile’s trajectory more efficiently than ever.
However, the Yomiuri Shimbun report noted that the SDF radar faced challenges tracking the missile during its terminal phase as it descended into the Sea of Japan, highlighting the pressing need for Japan to enhance its defense capabilities.
The Japanese Defense Ministry reported that North Korea launched a ballistic missile toward the northeast from an inland site on the afternoon of January 14.
The early-warning satellite belonging to US forces detected the launch, and the South Korean military closely tracked the missile as it ascended.
Having received this critical information from US forces, the SDF swiftly initiated missile tracking and promptly shared the acquired data with South Korea, marking the first operational use of the immediate information-sharing system introduced on December 19, 2023.
The coming together of the three nations peaked at the Camp David summit in August 2023, which resulted in a landmark agreement that set the groundwork for formalizing forthcoming defense collaboration, notably including the exchange of immediate missile warning information.
Despite facing stringent international sanctions, North Korea has continued to make rapid progress in its nuclear and missile programs, posing a significant threat to the security of South Korea, Japan, and their mutual ally, the United States.
Analysts and defense officials express grave concern over North Korea’s development and testing of solid-fuel weapons, which provide strategic advantages, including ease of deployment and quicker launch times, reducing the response window for the international community.
Philippines-based military analyst Miguel Miranda told EurAsian Times, “I believe the rest of the world hasn’t paid attention to the shocking nuclear arms build-up in North Korea. Consider that in just six years, if we ignore a brief attempt at meaningful diplomacy with the Trump administration from 2018-2019, Kim Jong Un’s regime has overseen the deployment of at least two more ICBMs and two medium-range strategic missiles along with several other long-range weapons that now include torpedoes capable of delivering nuclear payloads.”
Miranda added, “Let’s rewind to 2012 until 2017 period, and this was when North Korea beat all expectations and developed a whole generation of long-range missiles seemingly from scratch. Just recently, North Korea revived its space program by launching surveillance satellites on its own.”
He went on to explain, “Taken together, the scale of this threat casts a shadow over East Asia, a part of the world many perceive as stable and wealthy, but in reality, all the countries in the region have tiffs with each other. It’s true for South Korea and Japan as much as it’s true for China and Japan. This makes the Biden administration’s regional diplomacy all the more impressive. Where once there were many separate national programs for anti-missile defenses, there’s now teamwork in a proper USA-Japan-South Korea alliance.”
Significance Of The Move In Regional Security
The radar alliance, established through a 2014 information-sharing agreement among the three countries, utilizes existing systems.
As part of this initiative, the nations have independently connected their radars to a common platform at the US military’s Indo-Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, eliminating the previous reliance on the United States as an intermediary for missile information sharing.
In light of the geographical proximity between South Korea, Japan, and North Korea, there is a heightened concern about North Korea’s missiles reaching most parts of South Korea within five minutes and Japan within approximately 15 minutes of launch. This renders the monitoring and tracking of missiles exceptionally crucial.
However, Japan faces challenges with its radar system due to the Earth’s curvature, particularly when monitoring missile launches from western parts of North Korea.
Real-time sharing of information enhances the ability of Japan, South Korea, and the United States to monitor missile launches from various locations.
With limited radar coverage, Japan has even experienced challenges in tracking some North Korean launches, while South Korean radars benefit from their proximity, detecting missiles immediately before or after launch.
Given North Korea’s development of more maneuverable missiles capable of evading defenses, sharing timely data becomes increasingly crucial.
Miguel Miranda pointed out, “Being under threat from North Korea’s military build-up, South Korea and Japan designed their own strategies to counter nuclear-capable missiles. For South Korea, it was about a robust and very advanced combination of space-based sensors and ground-based defenses such as the L-SAM to further beef up the THAAD deployment inside its borders.”
He said, “In Japan’s case, they planned to have fixed radar sites networked with ships and satellites to monitor any North Korean missile activity. As for the United States, it has long maintained an abundance of resources to keep a tab on missile activities.”
Miranda added, “So there’s no doubt cooperation in missile defense involving the US, Japan, and South Korea is very significant. But this is a purely defensive posture and will not discourage North Korea’s ambitions”
Meanwhile, during the recent North Korean missile launch on January 14, South Korea promptly shared information beyond Japan’s radar blind angle with the Self-Defense Forces (SDF).
This facilitated earlier tracking by the SDF radar, crucial for initiating interception measures by Aegis-equipped destroyers equipped with interceptor missiles. The report noted that even a one-second faster tracking initiation can significantly increase the rate of successful interceptions.
However, despite this cooperation, there was a noticeable disparity between Japan and South Korea’s announcements regarding the missile’s flight distance, with Japan estimating at least 500 kilometers and South Korea at about 1,000 kilometers.
The missile’s hypersonic characteristics and irregular low-altitude course made radar tracking challenging. The Japanese media said there is a pressing need to enhance the Self-Defense Forces’ (SDF) detecting and intercepting capabilities by leveraging immediate radar data sharing to ensure Japan’s security against potential threats.