By Sandip Kumar Mishra*
North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile developments pose arguably the highest threat to Japan. North Korea has tested more than 20 missiles in 2017 alone; and conducted its sixth nuclear test, reported to be a hydrogen bomb, on 3 September 2017. While these present a serious security threat for South Korea and the US, Japan might be North Korea’s first potential target should the eventuality arise. The reliability of North Korean missiles to cause any serious damage to the US is still doubtful, and Pyongyang’s threats to the US remain more in the realm of rhetoric than reality. Similarly, Pyongyang is not expected to attack Seoul as current South Korean President Moon Jae-in has extended several olive branches to Kim Jong-un.
North Korea’s most likely target thus appears to be Japan. In 2017, North Korea tested two missiles that flew across Japanese territory, which has alarmed Japan substantially. In this context, Japan was expected to have a more nuanced view of the crisis to try and avoid a regional armed conflict through all means available. Japan can play a constructive role by going along with South Korea in an effort to bring the US and North Korea on to the negotiating table, and say no to any armed conflict with North Korea. A common and coordinated Japanese and South Korean stand on the issue could put pressure on US President Donald Trump to not carry forward his irresponsible policy of escalation against North Korea.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is no doubt aware that a constructive policy may bring positive results, and that any escalation would have serious consequences for Japan’s security. However, Abe is willing to use the North Korean crisis to his own advantage in domestic politics and to strengthen Japan’s alliance with the new US administration.
Since most of Abe’s electoral promises, including Japan’s economic recovery, remain unfulfilled and there are chances of popular resentment, Abe needs an impending external threat to win the next election. North Korea’s dangerous behaviour has presented him with the required opportunity. The Japanese, in this hour of ‘crisis’, will want a strong and assertive leadership, and Shinzo Abe will pose himself as such a leader. In fact, China and North Korea are the two most important factors strengthening Abe’s domestic political power. Abe announced pre-term elections in Japan, to be held on 22 October 2017, for this very reason. He appears certain of winning based on the current heightened domestic threat perception of the crisis on the Korean peninsula. In addition, by suddenly announcing the elections, he has not given enough time to most of the opposition candidates and parties to articulate their electoral visions.
Another way in which Abe has leveraged the North Korean threat is by developing an extraordinary level of trust with Trump. Abe has emerged as the closest to Trump among all other leaders of US’ allies. During the US election campaign, Donald Trump expressed his dissatisfaction with allies such as Japan and South Korea, who, according to him, enjoy significant concessions from the US and must bear a equal share of their own economic and security responsibilities.
Abe was swift to meet Trump after he came to power, and did not object to Trump’s decision to pull back from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was quite important for Japan. Abe has also expressed agreement with not only the US policy towards North Korea but also with almost statement by Trump on the matter, which have often been contradictory and confusing. On 8 October 2017, Shinzo Abe said that he “fully supports the US stance on pressuring North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme, with all options on the table.” In fact, on 30 September 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that “direct channels of communications with North Korea are open,” which was later contradicted by Trump, who tweeted, “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Rocket Man. Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done.” Abe has also said that North Korea uses negotiations “to earn time so that they could develop their nuclear technology.”
In short, Shinzo Abe’s strategy is more focused on using the North Korean issue to advance his narrow domestic and foreign policy goals rather than on responsible regional leadership. This may turn out to be a shrewd and successful approach for Japan since the results will probably favour Abe in the short-term; however, in the long-term, it could damage Japan’s image and have serious negative consequences for regional politics.
* Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS