The North Korean nuclear test: The Japanese reaction

By Masako Toki | May 27, 2009

Only 50 days ago, Japan called on the U.N. Security Council to condemn North Korea’s long-range missile launch. On May 25, Tokyo once again appealed to the Security Council for an emergency meeting to condemn Pyongyang–this time for its second nuclear test and its subsequent launch of three short-range missiles.

Tokyo learned of the test immediately after it was conducted, when the Japanese Meteorological Agency detected seismic activity that it quickly suspected was caused by an underground nuclear explosion. The agency relayed this information to the prime minister’s office, and within a few hours, Japan’s Security Council had decided to request a newer and tougher U.N. Security Council resolution against Pyongyang. Nearly simultaneously, Tokyo’s ruling and opposition parties unanimously agreed to adopt a parliamentary resolution denouncing the nuclear test, a stronger response than their reaction to the April missile test when the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party declined to support such a resolution. For his part, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso also strongly condemned the test. He termed it an “intolerable act that poses a significant threat to the national security of Japan as well as the peace and safety of the northeast Asian region and the entire international community.”

But despite such harsh rhetoric and swift action, Tokyo continues to be frustrated by the lack of results from diplomacy and sanctions. For example, unilateral sanctions against North Korea by the Japanese government haven’t really worked, and some Japanese officials who have been involved in the Six-Party Talks have openly expressed frustration that their efforts might have been in vain. (That said, the Japanese government is considering strengthening these unilateral sanctions by including an all-out embargo of Japanese exports to North Korea; currently, Tokyo prohibits port entry to North Korean ships and exports of luxury items and material related to weapons of mass destruction.) Japan’s hands are further tied by the fact that North Korea wants to talk to the United States directly and that China is the only regional player with influence over Pyongyang. So the only option Japan can take at the moment is to work closely with the United States and China–and, to a lesser extent, South Korea.

Soon after Japan’s call for U.N. Security Council action against North Korea, Tokyo reached out to the other members of the Six-Party Talks. In a phone conversation, Aso and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed that it was necessary to issue a tougher Security Council resolution. During the call, Aso received an assurance from Obama that Washington remains committed to defending Japan and to maintaining peace and security in Northeast Asia. At the same time, Aso also reached out to South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, who confirmed the importance of tripartite cooperation with the United States. Concurrently, on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe foreign ministerial conference in Hanoi, Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone tried to secure China’s support for a new Security Council resolution. While Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi indicated that Beijing understood Tokyo’s position, his response was rather limited: “[China is] seriously listening to Japan’s position and wants to continue talks with Japan.” Not surprisingly, his response didn’t soothe Japanese frustrations.

Such frustrations have led some in Japan–especially hardliners–to question if the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent is sufficient to protect the country. That’s why support for a more robust domestic missile defense system is increasing. It’s also why there has been talk of adopting a preemptive posture vis-à-vis North Korea. Recently, a panel consisting entirely of members of the country’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party proposed adding a first-strike capability to Japan’s new National Defense Guidelines, which will be released at the end of the year. “Japan should have the ability to strike enemy bases within the scope of its defense-oriented policy in order not to sit and wait for death,” the panel is rumored to have suggested. In some domestic corners, President Obama’s vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world has only increased this sentiment, as it will force Tokyo to choose between a secure nuclear umbrella or nuclear abolition in the face of serious threats from Pyongyang.

And while the reality of a Japanese preemptive option is highly improbable, North Korea’s increasingly provocative and belligerent actions may push Japanese defense policy further toward the hardliners’ posture. This is certainly a concern of the hibakusha, the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, and the country’s disarmament nongovernmental organizations, which represent the majority of public opinion. While they expressed anger at the North Korean nuclear test, they also were concerned that the test could strengthen the argument that Japan should pursue nuclear weapons.

As for the larger movement for a nuclear-weapon-free world, in Japan at least, support for Washington giving up its nuclear arsenal is intricately tied to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. For now, Japan feels it still needs to be protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. And until it no longer considers North Korea’s nuclear weapons a threat, it will be hard for Tokyo to support the global zero movement.

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