Japan's response to North Korea takes on a sharper edge

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is finding his nation dependent on the US in responding to North Korea, even as public opposition to the US base on Okinawa remains high.

Yuriko Nakao/Reuters
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is finding his nation dependent on the US in responding to North Korea.

North Korea’s attack on Yeonpyeong earlier this month, in addition to revelations that it has made dramatic advances in uranium-enrichment technology, has sparked anger in Japan and fueled the debate over its security ties with the United States.

The shelling of the South Korean island has dominated the news in Japan, even as Tokyo debates a key economic stimulus package and Prime Minister Naoto Kan battles attacks on his leadership and approval ratings of below 30 percent.

It has also exposed Japan’s dependence on the US in responding to North Korea’s unsophisticated, yet hitherto effective, negotiating tactics.

Hours after the guns fell silent, Japan issued the expected call for calm, while condemning the attack.

It was not, some observers agree, Prime Minister Kan’s finest hour as a statesman. His immediate response was confined to the setting up of an information-gathering task force, although he captured the public mood when he said: “Indiscriminate attacks on civilians is a barbaric act that should not be tolerated.

“We will cooperate with South Korea, as well as the United States, and the three of us together will decisively counter North Korea's reckless and outrageous acts.”

Sharpened tone on North Korea

Japan’s response has since acquired a sharper edge, as the global diplomatic response to the crisis begins to take shape.

Tokyo joined the US in quickly rejecting Chinese calls for emergency six-party talks in early December. In Tokyo, as in Washington, there is an innate resistance to being seen as rewarding the regime for its transgressions.

In unusually unequivocal language for a senior Japanese politician, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said yesterday that talks would be “impossible” as long as the North refused to honor previous commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

While some hard-line politicians have raised the prospect of further bilateral sanctions against North Korea, Japan’s options are limited. In addition to supporting UN Security Council sanctions, Tokyo has already banned all trade and refuses to allow North Korean ships and planes to enter its territory following the North’s nuclear and missile tests.

Aside from sending technologically flawed rockets into the western Pacific and shunning Japanese demands to explain fully the abduction of Japanese nationals during the cold war, North Korea has again demonstrated its ability to create unease on the other side of the Sea of Japan.

Naoto Kan shifts stance on US base

While there was no doubt that Sunday’s election for the governor of Okinawa, which hosts about half the 50,000 American troops in Japan, would end in victory for a candidate opposed to the relocation of a US marine base on the island, that the vote coincided with the assault on Yeonpyeong was a double blow for Kan.

His Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] swept into office just over a year ago promising to shift Japan’s foreign policy focus away from the US toward Asia, but a recent row with China over the Senkaku islands and a fresh crisis on the Korean peninsula have quickly blurred the party’s vision.

Kan, says Tobias Harris, author of the blog Observing Japan, can only follow Washington’s lead on North Korea – meaning that it, too, will remain ineffectual while President Obama considers his failed attempts to pressure the regime to change.

“If the US is virtually powerless – and it is – then Japan is actually powerless,” says Harris. “Dependent on the deterrent and retaliatory power of the United States, and having little economic leverage over North Korea, the Japanese government has little choice but to indicate that it stands united with other regional powers.”

Okinawa and China are key

Harris says current tensions are unlikely to soften sentiment against the base on Okinawa, where the reelection of Hirokazu Nakaima has thrown the future of the Futenma relocation into further doubt.

“North Korea has been committing periodic provocations for basically the entire period that the US and Japan have been negotiating the future of the US presence in Okinawa,” says Harris. “Whether it will make the Kan government more willing to force a solution on the Okinawan people … well, I doubt it.”

Japan’s eyes, like those of the rest of the region, are on China.

But frustration that North Korea’s main benefactor is unable, or unwilling, to rein in its ally is rising in Japan, its exasperation evident in an editorial from the Asahi Shimbun, a respected Japanese daily: “Pyongyang, in short, is doing whatever it pleases, and this is just not acceptable. China, on which North Korea relies for its economic and energy needs, bears a heavy responsibility. As the presiding nation of the six-party talks, China should do whatever it can to bring North Korea back to the right path, not just keep protecting it.”

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