North Korean nuclear crisis tests Japan’s mettle, has experts debating how to respond

Another war on the Korean Peninsula — this time, possibly a nuclear one — is beginning to look more like a possibility now than ever before, stirring anxiety among the Japanese public and prompting debate over how Japan should respond.

Amid the crisis, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has maintained close contact with U.S. President Donald Trump, holding teleconferences at an unprecedented rate and fully supporting Trump’s threat to use the military option against North Korea if necessary.

Abe’s full support for Trump has caused concern among left-leaning liberals here as the country has adhered to its war-renouncing pacifist Constitution for decades. But at the same time few have come up with any alternative policies other than siding with the United States.

The Japan Times recently interviewed three noted Japan-based security experts, asking how Tokyo should react to the latest crisis.

Their views and proposals of the three all differ, but they all emphasized that the crisis should be seen in a broader context, though Japanese people now tend to focus their attention on the North Korean military threat directly posed to Japan.

Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasagawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, pointed out that the recent development of an ICBM has not really increased the direct threat to Japan: Pyongyang has for years deployed dozens of intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can directly hit Japan and has possibly developed nuclear warheads that can be mounted on them, too.

What is altogether a more alarming aspect of the North Korean crisis is that a failure to stop Pyongyang will encourage many other nations and terrorist groups to pursue the same strategy — trying to develop nuclear weapons by defying all-out pressure from the international community, Watanabe said.

Allowing North Korea to be a nuclear power “would lower the hurdles for other countries to own nuclear weapons. Many nations would try to acquire nuclear weapons, and some would succeed,” Watanabe said in a recent interview.

“It would mean the collapse of the NPT system,” Watanabe said, referring to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Japanese people now appear to be mainly worried that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile threat could weaken the U.S. nuclear umbrella, under which Japan is protected.

But the collapse of the NPT system and the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue nations and terrorist groups is considered a more scary nightmare scenario for Japan and the rest of the world as well, Watanabe said.

“What Japan should do now is to try to have China, Russia, Europe and Southeast Asian countries understand that” and jointly stop Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, Watanabe said.

In that sense, it would be “suicidal” for Japan to develop and possess nuclear weapons of its own because it would only hasten the demise of the NPT system, he said.

Watanabe also pointed out that Japanese, with their memories of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still possess a strong anti-nuclear sentiment.

According to the latest Japan-South Korea joint poll conducted in June and July by the Tokyo-based Public Opinion Research Center and the Seoul-based Hankook Research Co., 74.7 percent of 1,000 Japanese respondents said they oppose the idea of Japan possessing nuclear weapons.

The result was in sharp contrast with the fact that 67.2 percent of South Korean respondents supported nuclear armament in their own country.

Watanabe said keeping U.S. nuclear weapons in Japan and sharing control with Washington may be an option for Tokyo to strengthen its nuclear deterrence against Pyongyang.

But it would be extremely difficult for the government to make such a decision given the strong public aversion to nuclear weapons, Watanabe said.

Meanwhile, Narushige Michishita, professor of international relations at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, has observed the North Korean crisis in a level-headed manner despite heated public debates over its threat to Japan’s security.

Michishita argued that Pyongyang has no reason to directly attack Japan unless war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula and Japan then tries to support U.S. forces engaging in a second Korean War.

“I myself don’t believe risks for Japan have increased as is perceived among the public in general,” he said in an interview. “North Korea won’t regard Japan as an enemy so long as Japan does not help defend South Korea. Rather, they want to normalize their relationship with Japan,” he said.

Michishita agrees with other experts that the potential military threat to Japan has significantly increased recently with Pyongyang’s latest test-firing of intermediate-range ballistic missiles and the alleged development of a hydrogen bomb.

Pyongyang’s successful launch of medium-range missiles on a “lofted” trajectory would make it even more difficult for Japan’s missile defense systems to intercept any given their much faster speed.

As a hydrogen bomb has far more destructive power, Pyongyang’s claim that it has successfully developed one will pose greater risks to Japan, Michishita said.

Having said that, Michishita doesn’t believe nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula is a likely scenario for now. Rather, North Korea is more likely to keep showcasing its military superiority over its archenemy, South Korea, and could even lead to a military clash with its southern neighbor while at the same time threatening the U.S. and Japan not to interfere with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, Michishita said.

“It is South Korea that is facing the greatest risks now,” he said.

Both Watanabe and Michishita maintain Abe is taking the right approach by building a close personal relationship with Trump and fully endorsing the Trump administration’s policies.

“That’s a great success what Abe has achieved. Now Trump trusts him very well, so it is unlikely that the U.S. would take any unilateral action without consulting Abe, ” Michishita said.

“That is really good for Japan,” he added.

Meanwhile, Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former assistant chief Cabinet secretary, offered a different opinion.

Yanagisawa, who was also a former senior Defense Ministry official, was one of the most high-profile opponents of Abe’s controversial reinterpretation of the pacifist Constitution and the 2015 security legislation that has greatly expanded the legal scope of the Self-Defense Forces’ operations to support U.S. military operations.

Under the war-renouncing Constitution, Japan’s use of force has been strictly limited to self-defense only. But with the constitutional reinterpretation and new security laws, Abe now claims that Japan can use the right to collective self-defense to support the U.S. if Japan’s “survival” is deemed at stake.

The right to collective self-defense is to attack a third country that is attacking an allied country — presumably, in the case of Japan, the U.S. — even if the country itself is not under attack.

“Without the security laws, Japan would be able to draw a line to distance itself from any war involving America. But now it can’t, which has increased the danger” to Japan amid the North Korean crisis, Yanagisawa said.

But at the same time, Yanagisawa believes Japan has already exhausted its diplomatic options in dealing with the North Korea crisis.

It is only the U.S. that can negotiate with North Korea because Pyongyang is developing nuclear weapons out of fear that the regime of leader Kim Jong Un could eventually be removed by the U.S., Yanagisawa said.

“Whether the nuclear weapons program can be stopped or not all hinges on the U.S.-North Korea relationship,” Yanagisawa said.

“Japan is not a player. There is nothing Japan can do now,” he argued.

Watanabe of Sasagawa Peace Foundation, however, would disagree with Yanagisawa.

He argued it is Abe who has actively involved the U.S. in dealing with the North Korean crisis.

“After Trump took power, the U.S. has often followed initiatives pushed by Japan,” Watanabe said, adding this is significantly different from the practices under the past Japan-U.S. relationships.

This is partly because Trump has still been unable to find enough senior government officials who can formulate key policies, Watanabe said.

“Now Trump looks willing to listen to what Abe says,” he said. “I don’t think Abe is simply trying to get into line with Trump.”

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