Why Japan is saying that threat by North Korea is worse than ever

Japan's concern seems largely in line with statements from American officials, but they also reflect a particularly contentious history between the Japanese and North Koreans.

Mike Segar/Reuters
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses the 71st United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York, on Wednesday. He expressed concerns over North Korea's latest nuclear tests.

The world must respond to North Korea’s latest missile and nuclear tests in an “entirely distinct” way, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzō Abe, told the annual United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

“The threat has now reached a dimension altogether different from what has transpired until now,” Mr. Abe said, noting that North Korea had launched 21 ballistic missiles and conducted two nuclear tests this year alone, most recently on Sept. 9.

The comments seem largely in line with statements from American officials, but they reflect a particularly contentious history between the Japanese and North Koreans – a history that influences Abe’s current push to amend the Japanese constitution.

Michael Green, a former director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and now an Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Security Studies in Washington, said the White House has long been watching the situation deteriorate, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi reported earlier this month. 

“All I can say about North Korea is that no president has handed to his successor a better situation on North Korea than they inherited, because North Korea just keeps blowing through every agreement,” Mr. Green said.

While past weaponry tests have been mired in technical failure, North Korea has shown steady improvement more recently. A missile launched from a submarine in August prompted greater concern from South Korea and Japan, which would both be within range of submarine-based missiles, which are more difficult to detect.

“North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats are not imaginary threats any longer, but they are now becoming real threats,” South Korea President Park Geun-hye said after the submarine launch. “Those threats are coming closer each moment.”

But for Japan, the nuclear threats have reinvigorated public attention to an issue that preoccupies the Japanese political agenda, according to East Asian security scholars Sebastian Maslow and Ra Mason, who edited the book “Risk State: Japan’s Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty.” In 2002, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Il officially acknowledged that Pyongyang had abducted Japanese citizens. That “abduction issue” remains unresolved. 

“In the eyes of many, North Korea’s military campaigns and kidnappings have epitomized the vulnerability and illegitimacy of Japan’s post-war institutions, including its pacifist constitution and immobile security forces,” Maslow and Mason wrote. “Consequently, for advocates of a ‘strong nation’ – represented by Abe Shinzō who has pledged to ‘take Japan back’ by liberating it from the constraints of its pacifist regime – North Korea has acquired a key place in renegotiating Japan’s security identity.” 

Many say that reforming the constitution is Abe’s lifelong political mission, as the Monitor’s Gavin Blair wrote. In July, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party gained a two-thirds “super majority” in the legislature's upper house, opening the door to revise the constitution, including Article 9, which states, “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

The United States flew supersonic bombers over South Korea in a show of force following North Korea’s most recent bout of tests. The move is a show of support for South Korea, which has no nuclear weapons of its own and depends on an American “nuclear umbrella” to keep its northern neighbors at bay.

Additionally, the White House and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang have agreed to step up cooperation in the UN Security Council and law enforcement, with discussion of possible UN sanctions in response to the tests.

China, North Korea’s main ally, has been angered by the tests, but it has called for talk, while others in the international community would prefer action. Mr. Keqiang told the General Assembly on Wednesday that countries must pursue disarmament while seeking a solution through dialogue.

Chinese and American officials have collaborated, meanwhile, to take action against companies on the Chinese-North Korean border believed to be peddling materials for the nuclear program, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

In a report released Monday, The Asian Institute for Policy Studies based in Seoul and C4ADS based in Washington, said distinguishing legal business activity from illicit trade is particularly difficult in the North Korean context.

“The regime’s control over the economy has meant that revenue from even the most basic licit business dealings can be diverted to support illicit programs, including nuclear and ballistic missile development,” the report states.

“Going after the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]’s alternative income sources is likely to be the surest means for the international community to coerce the Kim Jong-un regime into abandoning its nuclear weapons program,” the report concludes. “Getting there, however, will require significantly expanded efforts to continually investigate, monitor, and act against DPRK entities evading sanctions."

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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