North Korea Tops Abe’s Agenda

Posted January 4, 2006

Categories: Articles, Korea

Many foreign policy challenges lie ahead for Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, but his most pressing concern is much closer at hand: North Korea, especially in the wake of its declaration of a nuclear test on Oct.9.

Since then, Japan has been lobbying for strong United Nations-backed sanctions and implemented even stronger unilateral measures. This has now acquired urgency in Japan’s foreign policy environment, where officials were looking at China as an economic competitor and potential military challenge, and questions about Tokyo’s support for U.S. policies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

”Prime Minister Abe is known for his harsh view of North Korea,” says former deputy prime minister Hitoshi Tanaka, who was responsible for planning former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s 2002 surprise trip to Pyongyang.

Such views, Tanaka explains, might put Japan in a good position to play a significant role in resolving the current nuclear crisis, in part because Abe does not need to prove his nationalist credentials and because North Korea respects such power politics..

But, Tanaka cautions, “I don’t think any country, neither the United States nor Japan, can play a good negotiating role if there is a hole, like China helping North Korea or South Korea helping North Korea.”

Tanaka was in Washington, DC to speak at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s Asian Voices series, to address a number of critical foreign policy topics facing the new Japanese leadership.

The crisis in North Korea, he argues, demands more than simply a coordinated approach among countries and a clear statement of the bottom line. Dealing with North Korea requires both preparing for the worst and committing to serious negotiations, he adds..

Well-coordinated diplomacy holds out the best hope, however slim, for persuading North Korea to change the course of its policy, Tanaka explains. He recommends that “the U.S. government this time be prepared for very serious negotiations mandated by the very top of the government.”

In exchange for verifiable dismantlement of its nuclear program, North Korea would need something in exchange, such as “a future prospect of economic cooperation and normalization”.

But Mike Mochizuki, a professor of political science at George Washington University, remains sceptical given the U.S. position on North Korea, about Japan’s room for maneuver in dealing with the Stalinist state.

”We already have the rhetoric out there that the United States doesn’t want to reward bad behaviour or engage in bilateral negotiations,” he said at the same seminar. “I’m pretty pessimistic about how much flexibility there is in the Bush administration to change tracks on North Korea policy.”

Looking beyond Pyongyang, Japan faces other challenges closer to home. The last time that China and Japan were roughly equal in their geopolitical strength–in the 1890s, with Japan on the rise and China on the decline –the two countries fought a short war that proved humiliating for the Qing dynasty.

Now, with Chinese economic growth on track to match Japan’s output in the next decade, Tokyo is increasingly focused on restructuring bilateral relations so that the two powers face each other on a more equal basis.

Then, there is the issue of democracy. ”Chinese society is no longer shielded from rest of the world,” Tanaka says. “We talk about 300,000 Internet police in China, but they cannot stop all the information shared by the Chinese people. Sooner or later, China will have to face this question of political freedom.”

Koizumi’s politically charged visits to the Yasukuni Shrine served as a flashpoint in the relations between the two countries, generating significant anti-Japanese sentiment in China. Abe is expected to stay away from Yasukuni and has generally moderated his position on war-crime issues such as the women drafted into sexual slavery by the Imperial Army in the 1930s and 1940s.

But Tanaka points to much larger structural changes such as Japan’s changing psychology. ”In the mind of the Japanese people, they feel that we are a normal nation,” he notes. Other countries, the public believes, “should not intervene too much in affairs considered belonging to Japan itself. Prime minister Koizumi symbolised that kind of psychological change taking place in Japan.”

Tanaka hastens to add, however, that Koizumi did not simply follow public opinion. ”His strength was his ability to change public view and no longer rely on traditional political system.” Abe has inherited this fundamentally new feature of Japanese politics, he argues.

Abe’s decision to travel first to China and South Korea before visiting Washington indicated both the importance he places in good regional relations but also his determination to change public attitudes within Japan.

”There is one line of thinking out there that a little bit of tension between Japan and China is good for the United States because it is something we can employ to strengthen our defence alliance with Japan,” argues fellow panelist Randall Schriver, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “But having worked in more than one federal agency, I don’t think we have the deftness and the rudder control to actually get that right amount of tension.”

”I don’t see an explicit security competition between China and Japan,” observes Mochizuki. “The military balance is still in favour of Japan. Together, the United States and Japan have air superiority over China. In five to ten years, the military balance might shift. At that point, Japanese will face a decision of whether to upgrade its military capabilities.”

Fueling the tensions among the countries of East Asia has been nationalism. There have been protests over Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni shrine, the Korean-Japanese dispute over several small islands, and the Korean-Chinese conflict over ancient territorial claims from the Koguryo dynasty.

”We have seen a surge of nationalism in China, Korea, and Japan, and that surge of nationalism might become a confrontational nationalism,” Tanaka says. “There must be something in common, a common pursuit of regional interest. So I strongly advocate East Asian economic community-building.”

Abe, of course, has inherited a strong U.S.-Japanese alliance. ”Japan has to be a full partner as we move forward,” argued Schriver. “This is not just burden-sharing, but responsibility-sharing, action-sharing. It’s critical for us to have a likeminded partner in Asia.”

Koizumi likewise viewed a strengthening of ties with Washington as critical to the success of his efforts to revive a stagnant economy. He quickly moved to gain U.S. support on a number of economic issues, including trade and foreign investment. The United States pushed for a closer security policy in return.

But, according to Mindy Kotler, the director of Asia Policy Point, a number of polls throughout the Koizumi era demonstrated that the Japanese were not particularly interested in international relations or in Japan taking on a more substantial global role..

His dual challenge, then, was to boost the economy and shift public attitude toward a more global role for Japanese foreign and military policy. To change public attitudes about security, Kotler says, “Koizumi had to make the neighbourhood look a little dangerous.”

The dangers that Koizumi described, whether North Korea’s bomb or China’s nationalism, are now Abe’s problems. According to Tanaka, Abe’s best strategy lies in negotiating a comprehensive resolution to the nuclear crisis with North Korea, a grand bargain with China on economic, security and historical issues, and a set of multifaceted security arrangements with the United States as well as countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and India.

Whether he will take a consistently hard line remains unclear. Kotler believes the new prime minister’s approach to foreign policy will not be as instrumental as that of his predecessor: “Abe truly believes these conservative views about how the world works.”

Inter Press Service, October 24, 2006

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