Tense neighbour

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER Junichiro Koizumi explains his gift, an arrow that is believed to hit evil, to President Bush in this October 20, 2001 photograph taken in Shanghai. The North Korean nuclear test has allowed Japan to strengthen further its ties with the U.S. - KATSUMI KASAHARA/AP

JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER Junichiro Koizumi explains his gift, an arrow that is believed to hit evil, to President Bush in this October 20, 2001 photograph taken in Shanghai. The North Korean nuclear test has allowed Japan to strengthen further its ties with the U.S. - KATSUMI KASAHARA/AP

North Korea's relations with Japan face stormy weather in the aftermath of the nuclear test.

IN July 2005, a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry declared that its goal was a nuclear-free Korea, yet the country has now conducted one or possibly two nuclear tests, setting off fears of a regional arms race or even a military intervention by the United States backed by Japan. The region and the international community are worried, not only because of a new entrant into the nuclear club and the possibility of further proliferation but also because the cash-strapped country may transfer weapons and fissionable material to other countries or even terrorists. Some argue that the North Korean programme will provide ample justification for Japan to reverse its long-established ban on nuclear weapons.

Japan's initial reaction was to work closely with the U.S., and its Minister for Foreign Affairs Taro Aso stressed, at a press conference on October 6, that "the greatest problem is the spread of nuclear technology and nuclear materials, and their possible spread to other regions". The U.S. and Japan were the driving force behind the United Nations Security Council resolution to impose sanctions against North Korea, and it was only at the insistence of China and Russia that the proposal was modified to exclude any military intervention, to place limits on what cargo could be inspected and to allow conventional weapons.

The Japanese have banned the entry of all North Korean ships and imports from October 14, 2006, to April 13, 2007. North Korea exported some $120 million worth of goods, mostly seafood, to Japan last year, so this does carry some effect. An earlier resolution barring the entry of North Korean citizens into Japan has also come into force, and the government in Tokyo is considering further sanctions depending on the reactions of the international community. The Japanese policy towards North Korea, on the surface, appears to stand solidly behind the Bush administration, and many people in Japan feel that a regime change is the only solution. Yet, in fact, Japan has also been publicly stressing "dialogue and debate", and though backing the six-party talks, it has at the same time continued bilateral efforts. This government, despite the public's anger over the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by the North Koreans, has also to consider that large sections of the public are even more apprehensive of an aggressive policy that has abandoned diplomacy as a means of defusing the situation and set the region on a confrontationist path.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the North Koreans kidnapped Japanese citizens to teach the Japanese language and culture in North Korea. This came to light in 1985 when a North Korean agent, who had assumed the identity of an abductee, was caught, but the North Koreans publicly acknowledged this only in September 2002. They admitted that they had kidnapped 13 Japanese men and women. This led to widespread condemnation and undermined 15 years of Japanese efforts to normalise relations.

Since the 1990s, the Japanese government has been trying to improve relations with North Korea. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang in September 2002 and signed with Kim Jong-il the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration, in which Kim admitted to the abductions. This admission underlined the importance Kim attached to normalising relations. Koizumi in turn invoked former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's 1995 statement by making a formal apology for the "tremendous damage and suffering the people of Korea endured through its colonial rule in the past" and agreed to pay compensation for Japan's war-time atrocities in the form of economic cooperation, along the lines that it had agreed to with South Korea. However, the two countries could not reach an agreement on the amount and form of Japanese economic aid.

On top of the abductee problem, in October 2002 North Korea admitted to a uranium-based nuclear programme, which changed the climate between the two countries. In May 2004, when Koizumi went to Pyongyang for the second time, his talks were almost exclusively about the kidnapped Japanese, but he again stressed that North Korea would gain from dismantling its nuclear programme. But Kim Jong-il restated that while denuclearisation was his objective, as long as the U.S. kept its options for a pre-emptive strike open, North Korea would need its nuclear deterrent. Koizumi conveyed Pyongyang's message to President George W. Bush at the 2004 G-8 meeting, but Bush did not take up the offer.

Japanese foreign policy options were being narrowed, as Japan followed the U.S. lead, and public opinion once again turned against North Korea when DNA testing showed that the remains of a kidnapped Japanese, Yoko Megume, returned by the North Koreans, were either those of someone else or were mixed with those of some other person. Public opinion surveys showed that between 60 and 70 per cent of the respondents now supported sanctions against North Korea. In February 2005, North Korea declared that it had nuclear weapons and withdrew from the six-party talks, and Japan declared that it would not improve relations with North Korea until the nuclear and abduction issues were resolved and, pending formal relations, it would not give economic aid.

The Japanese government had begun to take steps to regulate closely trade with North Korea. In June 2004, a Bill was passed to facilitate the inspection of North Korean ships entering Japanese ports, for banned goods. It also sought ways to prevent the Chosen Soren (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) from transferring funds to North Korea (between $200 million and $500 m each year) as well as to bring them into the tax net. Japan had forcibly brought Koreans to work when Korea was its colony between 1910 and 1945, and many Koreans stayed on after the war. This community of Koreans is divided into supporters of North or South Korea, each with its own schools and community associations. Supporters of North Korea, many of whom have relatives in the country, have become a major source of funds for the North Korean government.

After Pyongyang's ballistic missile tests in the Sea of Japan on July 5, the Security Council adopted a resolution that condemned the aggression. The Japanese government supported that move with its own ban on further port calls by the Man Gyong Bong-92 ferry. It also cracked down on money transfers to designated companies in North Korea. But the new sanctions require legislation, which is not supported by all. A contentious debate is building up on the Regional Contingency Security Law passed in 1999, as invoking that would allow Japan to act along with the U.S. to support military action. The U.S. would be the sword and Japan the shield, that is, it would provide back-up in case of any military action. This coupled with earlier statements by officials that Japan could even think of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea fuels concerns that ratcheting up the tension will prove counterproductive.

The North Korean threat has created a climate conducive to Japan's becoming a "normal nation", that is, it has allowed it to improve its defence capabilities, forge closer ties with the U.S. and pass emergency laws, and even constitutional amendments, to allow for greater and more active participation within the U.S.-Japan alliance as well as in U.N. operations. It has been building its coastal fleet to prevent smuggling and to prevent North Korean spy ships from operating in its waters.

This new security posture is articulated in the "New National Defence Programme Outline", which reveals Japan's strategy for addressing security issues, such as international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and regional issues on the basis of the new strategic principle of "multifunctional and flexible defence" that relies on adaptability, mobility and flexibility rather than on an exclusive concentration on defence. These developments are taking place within a regional environment where friction between Japan and China, and between Japan and South Korea over the problems of history and territory and the heritage of Japan's colonial empire, continues to exist. Japan worries about China's nuclear programme as well as North Korea's military capabilities.

What then is the end game? It would seem that Japan's attempt at improving ties through negotiations has not worked so far but the U.S. strategy of confrontation and sanctions has only further exacerbated tensions and divisions. Perhaps Japan needs to consider what its interests in the region are and what kind of diplomacy may offer a way to reduce the far greater threat that military intervention or a cornered North Korea would pose.

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