Sun, Oct 22, 2017 - Page 7 News List

A Japanese fishing town on North Korean missiles’ track stands divided

As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plays up fears of a North Korean missile strike ahead of today’s election, people in Erimo, Hokkaido, are unsure what strategy would stop the rockets from flying over their town

By Malcolm Foster  /  Reuters, ERIMO, Japan

Illustration: Louise Ting

Ever since North Korea lobbed two missiles far above this windswept fishing town on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, seaweed farmer Mitsuyo Kawamura said she has been on edge.

“Now when I hear a loud sound, I look outside, I look out at the ocean,” 68-year-old Kawamura said from her seaside cottage in Erimo, where she laid out long, dark strands of kombu seaweed on stones to dry in the sun. “I feel anxious, like I never know when it will come again.”

As Japan prepared to vote in today’s national election, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called North Korea’s escalating threats — it also conducted a sixth nuclear test last month — a “national crisis” that only he could lead Japan through.

Yet the missiles that flew over Erimo on Aug. 29 and Sept. 15 created an eerie threat: No one saw or heard them. They streaked by several hundreds of kilometers above land, too high to see with the naked eye, before splashing into the Pacific more than 1,000km to the east.

Warnings of the missiles spread through sirens and government-issued “J-alerts” on millions of cellphones throughout Japan, jolting some out of sleep.

Kawamura has since stocked up on extra food and keeps the radio on to listen for more warnings. Like many residents here — and across Japan — she feels helpless, unsure of how to protect herself.

“When it’s launched, it could land here just moments later,” she said. “There’s nowhere to hide.”

Abe’s rhetoric has grown harsher as North Korea has threatened to “sink” Japan and seems intent on developing nuclear warheads that can reach the US mainland. He has repeatedly backed US President Donald Trump’s “all options on the table” stance and said now is not the time for dialogue.

“They promised in 1994 and again in 2005 that they would abandon their nuclear program, but they have broken their word and developed nuclear devices and missiles,” Abe said at a campaign rally last week. “We’re not going to be deceived anymore.”

To protect itself, Japan has deployed 34 Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile batteries around the country, including one in Hokkaido, and Aegis defense systems on several destroyers. US forces in Japan also have ballistic missile defense equipment that can — if all goes well — take out a missile in mid-flight.

The rockets thrust tiny Erimo, population 4,850, into the global spotlight. Maps on TV broadcasts showed the missiles’ flight paths over nearby Cape Erimo, a jagged point that juts into the Pacific where seals frolic.

At the town’s docks, where fishermen sorted through the morning’s haul of salmon, tossing them into vats of ice water, strong support for Abe was mixed with worries that he was too strident, putting Japan at risk.

“Right now, no one’s better than Abe,” said Satoru Narita, a 72-year-old fisherman.

If anything, Japan has been too passive, said 23-year-old Ryosuke Kinoshita, who supported Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

“Next time they launch one, I’d almost like to see us fire one back,” he said. “We can’t live in peace and safety.”

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However, Erimo’ fishing union head Haruki Suminoya cautioned that being overly aggressive could provoke North Korea into lashing out.

“Abe’s approach is too strong, too hardline,” he said. “A more restrained approach is better.”

The recent war of words between Trump and North Korea unsettled many residents, who pointed out that they were a much closer target than the US.

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