To be fair, Noda was working with only one eye at the time...

To be fair, Noda was working with only one eye at the time... (Source: European Pressphoto Agency)

Was the inability to forewarn the government on the passing of Kim Jong-il an instance of political failure for Japan? That is the question we are left with by a Shukan Bunshun article from the 05-12 January issue (provided courtesy of a long-term friend of JSW).

In an article titled “Kim Jong-il: “X day”, Ministry of Defense was deliberately ignored, “Covert Operation Plan” — Why was the National Security Council finished in 10 minutes?”, we are given a run-through of the events that day, pointing a very accusatory finger at Prime Minister Noda’s handling of the reporting of the event by his intelligence staff.

It begins by suggesting an intelligence failure on the behalf of the Cabinet Intelligence Research Office (CIRO), whose Director-General and his deputy may even have been given the boot as a result of this lack of forewarning:

At midday of 19 Dec 2011, immediately before the announcement that Kim Jong-il, General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, was deceased, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda departed the Cabinet Office in his official vehicle. He left the Cabinet Office to go to Shimbashi, Tokyo, to make a street speech, despite the fact that North Korean state television had announced 2 hours in advance “special coverage” starting from midday.

Did PM Noda hide the fact that he “knew”? This magazine validated thoroughly how the Japanese government acted a few hours of before and after the report of the death of Kim Jong-il came out. The result of our validation turned out to be very regrettable.

PM Noda didn’t know anything. He left the Cabinet Office without being given any information … never had a thought about the death of Kim Jong-il. The newspapers reported that Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office (CIRO), which is an intelligence agency to support the Prime Minister, immediately notified the secretary to the Prime Minister of “the NK prior notice” 2 hours in advance.

However, this is not an accurate report. CIRO had received information secretly through various means that there was a possibility Kim Jong-il had died — but they didn’t take it seriously. There was no organizational action taken. CIRO didn’t make an “intelligence report”, which could have made a tremendous impact on the Cabinet, and the Cabinet Office didn’t make a “request for information” to CIRO either. This was the actual condition of our central government to “the extraordinary situation” for which the world bates its breath.

This, if it is indeed true, is a classic case of intelligence failure by overwhelming: CIRO was given notice of the death of Kim Jong-il, a death which could have meant turmoil and chaos had the security apparatus collapsed following the news of his death, yet it did not act on this news.

However, CIRO is an understaffed and underfunded effort at centralizing intelligence, it is the Self-Defense Forces and Ministry of Defense who have the largest foreign secret intelligence capacity in Japan, one that was too slow and clunky for the Shukan Bunshun:

It is Defense Intelligence Headquarters (DIH) that is supposed to discover any evidence first within MOD. It is a highly classified agency, manned to handle and collect satellite imagery information. However, it was more than an hour after the “the prior notice”, around 11:45, when the first deliberation within the North Korea Division gathered at DIH. Furthermore, a “Tiger team”, which should be called-together for such an urgent situation wasn’t organized. The result of deliberations at the DIH was immediately passed along to the CIRO and the Defense (Internal) Bureau, MOD. However, the content of the report was that “there was a possibility of consequences following the death of Kim Jong-il: a conference between the U.S. and South Korea, a missile test, or a nuclear test.” The DIH couldn’t make a thorough deliberation because they couldn’t confirm the death of Kim Jong-il. Therefore, they couldn’t give a sense of threat to the CIRO and MOD Internal Bureau, which had received the information. Everything fell behind the curve, even though the DIH confirmed some evidence of the death of Kim Jong-il from accumulated data after a few hours of detailed analysis. That is to say, the DIH of MOD has also become dysfunctional.

It is hard to fault the DIH here, they received information of the death, albeit an hour late, and disseminated this to their clients (CIRO and the Defense Bureau). It seems that the only failure leveled by the weekly magazine is that they weren’t fast enough, which is fairly difficult for a bureaucratic organization dealing with a real-time response to a situation the North Koreans had locked up tight.

But the Shukan Bunshun‘s wrath is held back for a special target – bookending a rather Hollywood-like interpretation of military contingency planning:

It is now widely reported that Korea, China, and the U.S. didn’t have accurate information on Kim Jong-il in advance, although it is difficult to admit that ministers of our cabinet officials at least felt relived to know that they were not the only ones who didn’t have the information. The Cabinet Office is the problem because they had received the initial information of “the NK prior notice,” but didn’t request any more information.

However, there is a bureau which secretly operated while the Cabinet Office focused on doing nothing. It was the Bureau of Operations, MOD. Immediately after “the NK prior notification,” stringent security was enacted and a thick purple-colored binder was pulled out of a safe. It is only whispered about in code-like language among a very limited number of cadres — “Code KD”. KD means “Kim Jong-il is deceased” and it is a secret operation plan. It encompasses a detailed operations manual for the Self-Defense Force (SDF) what they should do and prepare for when “X day” comes. The “KD” plan was immediately brought to higher officials of the MOD.

At midnight, with confirmation out of North Korea, officials of the MOD who had read “KD” felt an extreme sense of threat as they headed to the Defense Minister’s office. The National Security Council (NSC), which wasn’t convened 17 years ago when Kim Il-sung was deceased, had to be held this time at the Cabinet Office. Compared to 17 years ago, it has become easier to carry forward realistic deliberations on security issues since the development of a law related to national emergencies was passed. The head of the Joint Staff (a 4-star uniformed officer) was to be called in to join the NSC. His attendance as an observer who can advise if requested is stipulated by law. It is entirely dependent on the politicians who participate in the NSC to get a picture of the required operations for possible urgent situations in the future. The extreme anxiety that MOD officials felt that night originated from such concerns about their politicians.

At the same time, the MOD handed over information, via various sources, to the Cabinet Office. Officials repeatedly said to themselves: “This is basic information for what needs to be done, and prepared for, regarding national security matters. This is something the Prime Minister could utilize immediately.” So, what kind of situations does this “KD” plan assume to occur? According to Ministry of Defense, it is divided into three possibilities.

The first scenario is: “attack against Japan by Nodong missiles.” The Nodong missile threat is assumed to be created by adventurists within North Korean military trying to bring forward unity among the people, are not under the control of the young leader and pose a threat to the far east region. These Nodong missiles, hidden in the mountains, would be launched from a Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL). With such information, the SDF would begin the emergency deployment, the second time since its establishment, of its ASDF Missile Defense Units and MSDF Aegis ships in order to sound-out any evidence of missiles launches. Moreover, an Infantry Regiment of the GSDF would provide security for the Missile Defense Unit. In case the Missile Defense Unit fails to bring down the launched missile, a few would land on areas of high population density.

Nerve gas is believed to be in the warhead of the missile, and it can cause serious health problems. The Central Nuclear Biological Chemical Weapons Defense Unit (CNBC) of the GSDF, which worked on the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and other Chemical Defense Units in the Kanto area, would be readied to move with an order for disaster dispatch. “KD” determines that the first phase has the highest possibility of occurrence.

The second scenario “KD” assumes is “a situation where many refugees might rush into Japan.” This operation would be handled by MSDF, and the Coast Guard (JCG). Depending on the situation, JCG will be placed under MSDF command in accordance with national laws. Meanwhile, it assumes that the GSDF operate independently. As for a countermeasure to the crowding of refugees, how many members of SDF would be needed to deploy to all the coastal areas along the Sea of Japan, and what is the appropriate interval to place the members of SDF, in order to prevent illegal entry to Japan? Such concerns are seriously deliberated.

The third scenario is “a case where North Korean military ‘invades’ South Korea.” “KD” assumes that this has the least possibility of occurrence, but it states that this worst case scenario should not be excluded. The content assumes the realistic war situation between North Korea and South Korea. What “KD” assumes is not for Japan to join the war. However, there is a “TJNO” issue, which are operations to transport Japanese nationals overseas, i.e. Japanese residents from Korea to Japan. The main units for executing TJNO are the Central Readiness Regiment that is composed of a Transportation Unit of ASDF, and the 1st Helicopter Brigade, and 1st Airborne Brigade of GSDF.

Japan’s NSC was convened on 19 Dec 2011, at 13:00, and GSDF General Ryoichi Oriki, head of the Joint Staff, participated. It goes without saying that he had a copy of “KD” with him. However, according to one of the participants at the NSC, Prime Minister Noda didn’t make any information requests to Gen. Oriki. Not only did he not request any information, PM Noda didn’t even ask Gen. Oriki to make remarks on a worst-case scenario for Japan, and what we should do and prepare for.

We can easily imagine Gen. Oriki’s weariness of GEN Oriki, who had prepared and brought “KD” with him. According to other participants, the information that “there wasn’t enough information” was revealed at the NSC, and it ended with PM Noda giving out routine directions to the cabinet officials. There was no hard-evidence obtained by the intelligence.

In this way, the NSC, which entrusts the continuance of our nation and existence of the people, ended in only 10 minutes. The importance of “KD” is not only for simulating operations by assuming a terrible situation. Ministers are required to make political judgments when the worst case scenario, which “KD” assumed, happens. It is indispensable that the specific danger “KD” describes, and scenarios and ideas for countermeasures are shared. However, there wasn’t sufficient time for the Cabinet Ministers to share such recognition. That was the biggest misfortune for our country. It is impossible to entrust Ministers, who do not have a picture or understanding of these potential dangers, with our future. The fact that PM Noda didn’t request any information raises a more severe situation. A “weak point” of Japanese politics, which needs to be solved, can now be seen. For example, opinion is still not yet settled in the SDF’s Joint Staff Office about the “joint operation” which can mobilize the whole SDF in the event of a “Nodong missile attack”, as was described in scenario one.

The rest of the article describes the differences of opinion in these joint operation scenarios, but they seem a little disjointed, perhaps due to the translation or perhaps due to the lack of knowledge of the writer, but still:

The “KD” OPLAN excludes the GSDF from joint operations, so the joint work is limited to the MSDF and ASDF. The Missile Defense Unit of ASDF would operate on its own, and there would be no escort units. The GSDF insists on doing such an escort mission, but the Joint Staff Office does not approve it. This is not only due to the technical issue of combining infantry and the anti-missile systems, but also the opinion from the MSDF that “deploying large units on ground might stimulate North Korea.” The ASDF, turning a deaf ear to outside opinions, thinks that it doesn’t need support from other units because it has a recently-introduced foreign manufactured tracking system.

As for the second scenario, the countermeasure for refugees, the plan doesn’t come up with a solution on how to handle armed refugees. Moreover, the MSDF and JCG are confident that they would catch such refugees before they reached ports in Japan. Therefore, movements of the refugees on the ground hasn’t been considered. That is why this specific area of countermeasure hasn’t been determined.

The Crisis Management Division of the Cabinet Office has studied the “Shimo-koshiki Island Incident”, which happened in 1997. A large number of foreign stowaways landed on Shimo-koshiki Island, located west of Kagoshima prefecture. There were only 2 police officers on the Island, so public safety wasn’t secured. However, there was no order for the ASDF, which was stationed on the Island, to conduct public security operations, although there were 170 members at the ASDF base. Nevertheless, a final policy on how to handle such a case has not been determined.

These matters have been put on hold for 18 years. In 1993, President Clinton decided to plan for a military assault on facilities in North Korea, which was carrying out nuclear test. It was confidentially passed on to Japan. The Japanese government assumed various situations, such as missile attacks and refugee countermeasures, and also considered ways to deal with these matters. However, it has turned out that years later, those matters in question in 1993, still remain unsolved. In fact, there are many Japanese ports without a JCG or Customs presence. It is not difficult to imagine such ports to be an easy target not only for stowaways, but also special operations forces tasked with lethal covert actions.

That last paragraph left me cold, but still, the conclusion to the article makes a bit more of an impact. The convening of the NSC is the best chance for the Cabinet to come to grips with a potential threat. On the plus side here, the NSC convened shortly after the North Korean coverage of Kim’s death, but that it took only 10 minutes, if true, suggests little was brought up there.

Such conditions have not yet been changed. There are many problems in Japan that need solving by political action. In order to do so, politicians should have a realistic picture of the threats, and how to handle them. Unfortunately, the NSC, which ended in just 10 minutes, has revealed that the current cabinet officials do not have such an ability.

On the whole, however, while the article reeks of embellishment and thread-bare sourcing, it made an ideal opportunity for the Shukan Bunshun to bash Noda for being incompetent on national security issues, which given his choice of Defense Ministers seems a rather fair assessment. As Peter Beck, an expert on North Korea from the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations and a fellow at Keio University in Tokyo in 2011, told the Wall Street Journal’s Japan Real Time:

“I certainly don’t think it’s within the means of the Japanese leadership” to take advantage of North Korea’s leadership shift said Mr. Beck. “I think they’re so focused on internal issues like staying in power, pleasing domestic constituencies. So much so that I don’t see any leader willing to take the political risk in trying to test North Korea.”

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch