What if North Korea’s missile would hit Japan by accident?

North Korea just fired a missile over Japan. What if the rocket would malfunctioned and would hit Japan? Probably there would be some (military?) response. Would you say there was a real danger having this scenario, does North Korea care? Read few comments.

Harry Kazianis, Director of Defense Studies, Center for the National Interest

If a North Korean missile crash landed in Japan by accident, it could be the spark that starts a war.

Japan would be very hard pressed to respond in some military fashion. Tokyo could also call on the United States to respond on its behalf, invoking the U.S.-Japan defense treaty.

The danger here is if Japan did strike back, North Korea would also strike back as well. Pyongyang could decide to launch a missile strike on Japan itself, or even launch a dangerous cyber attack.

This is why Kim Jong Un’s recent missile tests are so terrifying–one accidental missile crash landing in South Korea or Japan could start a conflict that would be tough to stop once begun.

Shea CottonResearch Associate, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies

What if questions like this are always tough because what would happen would heavily depend on exactly what went wrong and how. If it just smashed into some rocks along the coast and no one was injured and no property was damaged I doubt there would be a military response. There would definitely be an international response however. If it had crashed into Japan and damaged some property and injured some people that might be a different story. I think the real chances of a response would come if Japan interpreted the malfunction as an attack and decided to launch a few missiles or scramble some aircraft to attack North Korea.

Obviously I’m sure North Korea does not want this to happen. At this point though they have launched over Japan 3 times (and they attempted to overfly Japan another time but the rocket malfunctioned before it could make it over Japan) and nothing bad has happened. In some ways I think North Korea is heavily discounting the chances of an accident like the kind you’re imagining. Earlier this year, North Korea had an unsuccessful test of the Hwasong-12 (the same missile they just launched). The missile didn’t just malfunction however, when it exploded parts of it rained down over populated areas in North Korea reportedly damaging several structures. Kim Jong Un and the North Korean leadership are obviously willing to tolerate that sort of damage. So they might feel as if it would be no big deal if it did happen to the Japanese.

Sharon SquassoniDirector and Senior Fellow, Proliferation Prevention Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

Obviously, North Korea’s actions have everyone on edge, leading me to question the value of speculating about military responses to malfunctions.  Not only do governments have an obligation not to overreact, but the media and experts have that same obligation.  That said, some observers have suggested that sending the missile toward Japan rather than toward Guam (because North Korea can only test missiles east and south rather than west or north) might have indicated a desire not to unnecessarily ratchet up tensions.  On the other hand, not testing at all would be the best way not to exacerbate current tensions, right?  So it’s hard to tell how committed North Korea is to reducing the risks of inadvertent escalation.  However, it should be made patently clear to them, if they do not realize it, that testing missiles is a risky business and they would do well to be transparent and not provocative.

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