Last Friday, the DPRK launched a rocket in commemoration of 100th birthday of the country's founder Kim Il-sung. U.S. thermal imaging satellites immediately detecting the ignition of the rocket's engines. Under information-sharing agreements worked out long ago between Japan and the United States, the launch detection warning .was relayed to the government of Japan. The U.S. information was immediately shared with Japan's Self Defense Forces, which were on high alert to detect, track and, if necessary, shoot down the rocket-- oops, I'm sorry, missile.
The service personnel on board three Aegis-class destroyers equipped with SM-3 missiles and the personnel at the ground based radar stations on Shimokoshikijima (E), Fukuejima and numerous other sites in Kyushu, northern Chugoku and Okinawa stared at their screens, waiting for the confirmation of the rocket's rise.
And they waited.
And they waited.
And they waited.
Funny thing about the Earth: it's curved. If some object blows up before it rises above your horizon, you are going to be waiting forever.
Both the Aegis destroyers in the East China Sea were cruising far to the south (having two in the Sea was a public relations stunt: in terms of missile defense and radar coverage, one was more than sufficient). The choice of positioning did provide greater protection to the Okinawa Islands but also did not upset the Chinese. It would have made more sense from an intelligence gathering standpoint to position one of the two destroyers in the north, closer to the launch site. Unfortunately, China tends to consider the northern part of the East China Sea and all of the Yellow Sea as a no-go area for all but the most intrepid of foreign naval powers.
So following Friday morning's launch, Japan was blind to a no-longer-existing-possible-threat. Which, when you think about it, is no big shakes.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura Osamu, the government spokesman and concurrently the government's COO, did not come out of the Security Council -- which he is a part of, meaning that he is somehow responsible for reporting to the public on a meeting he supposed to be attending -- until an hour after the launch to admit the fascinating but tentative possibility that a launch may have taken place.
All of which looks terribly bad and stupid, considering that U.S. and South Korean officials were making announcements of a launch having taken place within minutes of the launch's having taken place.
Predictably, the main opposition parties have gone to town on the "failure" of the government to keep the public informed in a timely manner about what was going on. The national official security threat system called J-Alert was never engaged. Government email communications even 50 minutes after the launch were saying that a launch had not been confirmed. In a bit of humorous bad luck resulting from the width of the computer screens of the government's official communications systems and the peculiarities of Japanese sentence structure, the message from the government read what is is the equivalent of:
"As for the launch of a missile, the current status is that a missile launch confirmation has
Whatever hyperventilations about the Japanese government's lack of preparedness or bad execution emerge, three points:
1) With the rocket doing itself in, nobody was ever in a position to get hurt.
2) The SDF and the government followed prudent protocols, showing they had learned from the false positive report in 2009 that led to an unnecessary warning being passed on to local officials.
3) The ridiculousness of Fujimura's having had to have been in two places at once may fan into flame the ever-smouldering debate over the Cabinet's need for a dedicated spokesman.
Burning one of the five Special Advisor to the Prime Minister (shusho hosakan) positions in order to appoint an individual charged solely with providing information to the public was one of the few good ideas former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo brought with him when took over as prime minister. That the decision blew up in his face was due to his having chosen the shameless self-promoter Seko Hiroshige as his Special Advisor for public communications.
Ever since the Seko fiasco, no PM has been willing to repeat the experiment -- which is too bad, as the present arrangement has never been to the public's benefit in terms of providing comprehensive and comprehensible information. It has also in some cases become something of a power trip for the man (yes, only men so far) chosen to simultaneously wear two very important government hats, turning the Chief Cabinet Secretary into something of a Chief Cabinet Jerk.