TOKYO—Japan plans to develop its own missiles capable of reaching North Korea, part of a defense buildup that would give Tokyo the ability to strike if it anticipates an attack.
Lawmakers in Japan’s ruling party approved the missile proposal on Wednesday, and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the military wants to strengthen weapons systems that give Japan strike capability from beyond the reach of its opponents.
Japan has been reviewing its defenses against Pyongyang, which is rapidly developing its own missile program including intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the U.S. Dealing with North Korea is likely to be a top challenge for President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he won’t meet leader Kim Jong Un on the same terms President Trump did.
While Mr. Trump largely focused on threats to the U.S. homeland, Japan is worried about shorter-range North Korean missiles, which Pyongyang frequently tested over Japanese territory before an informal moratorium prompted by a series of Trump-Kim summit meetings.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose lengthy term in power was marked by a military buildup focused on China and North Korea, made missile defense the subject of his final act in office. Just before handing the reins in September to Yoshihide Suga, Mr. Abe said Tokyo would come up with a plan by the end of the year.
Part of the plan is to build two Aegis ships for missile defense. Mr. Abe had initially planned a land-based Aegis Ashore system developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. , but had to scrap it after concerns about the safety of people living nearby.
Wednesday’s meeting by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s defense panel backed the new Aegis ships. They are expected to get final government approval later this month and would augment an existing fleet of Aegis destroyers involved in missile defense and other missions.
The buildup is politically sensitive because of Japan’s pacifist tradition in the postwar era and its constitutional prohibition on possessing war potential.
Some in the ruling party want Japan to make clear its willingness to strike an enemy base even before it is struck itself. They have in mind scenarios in which North Korea is detected preparing to launch missiles at Japan.
But Mr. Suga has shied away from openly threatening North Korea with a pre-emptive strike. The plan to build new missiles would take a middle course: The missiles could be used pre-emptively without any explicit statement to that effect.
Mr. Suga’s top aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, said Wednesday of the new missile system, “It is not aimed at attacking enemy bases.”
Jun Azumi, a lawmaker in the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, said despite such assurances, “we are concerned that it deviates from the defense policy that Japan has maintained throughout the postwar era.”
Itsunori Onodera, a former defense minister who heads a ruling party national-security panel, said the idea for a homegrown missile capable of attacking overseas land targets came after the Defense Ministry looked more closely at a missile known as Type 12 developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.
While the missile was initially aimed at ships in nearby waters, the ministry found its range could be extended to farther targets and it could be deployed from ships, aircraft or land bases, he said.
Officials declined to give the precise range of the proposed missile, but Itsunori Onodera, a former defense minister who heads a ruling party national-security panel, said it would have “standoff capability,” meaning it could hit enemy targets beyond the range of the enemy’s ability to strike back.
Japan has already earmarked funds to buy several types of Norwegian and U.S.-developed missiles with ranges of up to about 550 miles. By developing its own missiles, Japan can adapt them more closely to its own launch platforms and Tokyo’s most likely overseas targets.
One ruling-party lawmaker said the new missiles could also be used for defense of islands on Japan’s southern perimeter, where it has a territorial dispute with China.
Write to Chieko Tsuneoka at chieko.Tsuneoka@dowjones.com
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