Kim Jong-un’s unbridled military aspirations, and Pyongyang’s desires to become a recognized nuclear power, risk provoking a spiraling arms race in Northeast Asia. Together, they represent potentially the biggest strategic and diplomatic challenge to the new and largely untested Trump administration, forcing US policy makers to reassess—albeit with mixed results—how they handle Asia’s rogue regime.
But while the pressures are intense for the United States, they are arguably even worse for Japan. The North’s unexpectedly rapid progress in its nuclear ambitions in the last year is raising fundamental questions about the durability of some of Japan’s distinctive, established political and strategic norms of behavior.
Some worry that these repercussions may mean that North Korea’s actions could ultimately threaten the stability of the US-Japan alliance—a system in place since the early 1950s—as Japanese policy makers begin to question the reliability of a US president who seems dangerously capricious, self-interested, unpredictable, and entirely too sympathetic to military solutions at the expense of the interests and security of its regional partners.
With these factors in mind, how might Japan respond to North Korea’s missile tests and other provocations? Will the North Korean threat transform Japan’s long postwar defense policy, removing some of the constraints and norms that have limited Japan‘s use of military force that are enshrined in the Japanese Constitution’s Article 9—popularly known as the "peace clause?" Will the looming threat of an unprovoked North Korean nuclear attack force Japan to break with years of post-war anti-nuclear sentiment and develop its own nuclear weapons capabilities in an effort to acquire its own independent nuclear deterrent? (To Japan’s neighbors, the latter possibility is especially worrisome, given the very large stockpile of plutonium that Japan has accumulated from its decades-long, civilian breeder reactor reprocessing program. As of 2014, Japan had about 640 kilograms of unused plutonium on hand, or enough to make about 80 nuclear bombs.)
Conversely, what are the chances of bilateral direct talks between Japan and North Korea and a renewed push by Japan‘s leaders to explore options for full-fledged normalization of ties between the two countries? Could, and should, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe take the considerable diplomatic and political risk of talking to his North Korean counterpart?
To answer these questions and determine Japan’s likely courses of action, we first must look at the record.
Japan-North Korea: an abnormal relationship. Japan and the two Koreas have a long and bitter history together, complicated by the Japanese Empire’s occupation and colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century. Going further back, some of the reasons for the long-standing tensions between these countries are rooted in history and geography; historically, Japanese strategic analysts have long seen the Korean Peninsula as a “dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.” From the abortive 13th-century Mongol invasions of Japan to Kim Il-sung’s blitzkrieg assault on South Korea in 1950, Japan has long viewed Korea as a source of danger and unpredictability. North Korea’s recent spate of aggressive missile tests—no fewer than 12 in 2017, a number of which have landed in waters perilously close to Japan—has reaffirmed the existential challenge faced by the Japanese people and the Liberal Democratic Party government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
To appreciate the scale of the challenge facing Japan’s leaders today, it’s important to keep in mind the novelty of the current North Korean problem for Japan’s diplomats and politicians. Japan’s relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have been largely trapped in the deep-freeze of Cold War rivalry. Unlike Japan’s relations with South Korea, which were normalized in 1965, the Tokyo-Pyongyang relationship has been shaped by persistent mutual suspicion and resentment. Tokyo and Seoul saw the benefits of mutual, increased trade and investment—and the two countries were also given an additional push toward political convergence and ultimately reconciliation by the strategic interests of a United States that sought harmony between its two key Asian allies. In contrast, Tokyo and Pyongyang have long confronted the yawning political gulf that separates a liberal, democratic Japan from an authoritarian and repressive North Korea.
This gulf persisted, notwithstanding the tendency of Japan‘s leaders to separate politics from economics (a mindset known as seikei bunri) when dealing with rival or hostile states for much of the post-1945 period. Whether developing pragmatic business ties with Communist China during the 1950s and 1960s, or managing to keep diplomatic connections with both Israel and the Arab states in the 1970s after the 1973 oil embargo, Japanese leaders have instinctively understood the benefits of pragmatism in foreign affairs. But in the case of North Korea, politics and economics have been irresistibly intertwined, and emotional and historical issues have often blocked any possibility of diplomatic rapprochement. For Pyongyang, Japan has been an easy and viscerally appealing target for the DPRK’s propaganda campaigns, given the deep resentment that Koreans (both in the North and South) feel towards Japan for its brutal colonial domination of Korea from 1910 to 1945. For Tokyo, anti-communist suspicions, fear of Pyongyang-led subversion activities in Japan, Japanese notions of cultural superiority, and a residue of racial discrimination towards Koreans that still prevails in parts of contemporary Japan have all stood in the way of improved relations.
In 2002 and 2004, under then-Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi, the Liberal Democratic Party government sought to break out of this diplomatic deep-freeze by exploring options for normalization. Koizumi took the bold step of being the first post-war Japanese premier to visit Pyongyang for direct talks with Kim Jong-il, then-leader of the country and father of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s current leader. One of the talks’ main sticking points was the problem of about a dozen or so (potentially as many as 80) Japanese citizens, who had been kidnapped from Japan by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. The whereabouts and fate of these Japanese abductees (an issue referred to in Japanese as rachi mondai) still remain unresolved, despite a willingness by the North to admit its role in some, but not all, of these abductions. For contemporary Japanese politicians— including Prime Minister Abe, who has been the most vocal supporter of the relatives of the missing abductees dating back to his time as a senior party official under Koizumi—this humanitarian issue is both personally significant and a core element of Japan’s policy towards North Korea.
These factors mean that Japan’s North Korea problem is diverse and complex. While the strategic threat from the North in the form of Pyongyang’s past five nuclear tests and its improved missile capabilities poses an immediate danger, it is reinforced by a wider set of longer-term historical, cultural, political, and humanitarian tensions that complicate Tokyo’s choices. These are challenges in their own right, but they also potentially offer unusual opportunities for Japanese policy makers to help resolve the current crisis in ways that are not open to other actors, whether in Washington, Seoul, or European capitals.
Japan’s response. Prime Minister Abe’s response to the North Korean threat has been focused and energetic. In cooperation with the Trump administration and the UN Security Council, the Japanese government has been at the forefront of efforts to push for tougher economic sanctions against the DPRK. Abe has also tightened Japan’s own bilateral sanctions against Pyongyang and lobbied other governments—most notably China—to exert more pressure on Kim Jong-un to halt its missile-testing program.
North Korea’s most recent long-range missile tests, on July 4 and July 28, have been widely seen as a game-changer, signaling a breakthrough in the DPRK’s technological prowess and allowing it to threaten not only its immediate neighbors but also potentially target the continental United States—although some observers say that the ability of North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missiles to deliver a nuclear payload to the lower 48 states of the United States is exaggerated, and may not even be able to deliver a North Korean atomic bomb to Anchorage, Alaska. And while expert opinion remains similarly divided on whether the North has acquired the full miniaturization and targeting capabilities to deliver a nuclear warhead successfully against a US city, there is a consensus that the pace of North Korean progress has accelerated.
Consequently, it is no surprise that Abe has been vocal in warning opinion-makers both at home and abroad of the importance of devising an appropriate response to this increased threat. In recent weeks, the prime minister has warned the Japanese public that the North is capable of firing missiles armed with chemical weapons against Japan. Meanwhile, Japanese bureaucrats have taken the unusual step of issuing guidelines to local and prefectural officials, as well as to journalists, on appropriate civil defense measures and how best to guard against the possibility of an attack from the North. In addition, foreign visitors to Japan—including academics, diplomats, and visiting senior politicians—are routinely briefed on the nature of the North Korean challenge, and the prime minister and his cabinet staff have been assiduously soliciting the support (in both word and deed) of foreign governments in combatting the threat from Pyongyang.
While these public statements are a significant sign of Tokyo’s concern, there are limits to how much added security they can provide Japan. The biggest, immediate worry for Japanese security planners is time. Missiles launched from North Korea could reach Japanese territory within as little as 10 minutes—placing major Japanese cities and heavily populated urban areas at risk from a surprise attack from the North. Japan, thanks to missile defense capabilities developed in partnership with the United States, has a dual-layer system based on Patriot land-based PAC-3 anti-missile batteries and four Aegis-destroyer equipped with the SM-3 anti-missile system. While the Patriot batteries are designed to destroy missiles during the terminal stage of their attack on land-based Japanese targets, the Aegis system is intended to shoot down missiles flying over Japan.
Greater defense flexibility. Important as these systems are, their reliability is uncertain. And the growing threat from the North has encouraged Japanese defense planners to begin exploring options for developing new, more sophisticated, and flexible counter measures. Such measures include the acquisition of cruise missiles and advanced satellite guidance technology that would allow Japan to intercept North Korean missiles either on the point of launch or potentially pre-emptively. While there has been considerable debate (going back many years to the 1950s) over the constitutional legitimacy of such measures—with some critics arguing that pre-emption violates the norms of Article 9—it is striking that recently appointed Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera has been a vocal supporter of this new approach. Recent opinion polls appear to back him up, suggesting that as many as 31 percent of the Japanese public support a policy of pre-emption, according to the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs. But moving towards such an approach would be politically controversial at home, as well as expensive and time-consuming. Ultimately, it would take considerable resources (at a time when the government is struggling to shrink the country’s huge national debt) and several years before the country would have the capability to protect itself independently.
Given these constraints, Japan is required to double down on its traditional security partnership with the United States. Notwithstanding significant concerns in Tokyo about the unpredictability of Donald Trump, senior-level dialogue and cooperation between the foreign and defense representatives of the United States and Japan remain very strong. Tellingly, this was reflected in the most recent, August 17 round of the “two plus two” talks between US Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis and Minister Onodera and the new Japanese Foreign Minister, Taro Kono, in Washington, D.C. In addition, important legal and doctrinal developments dating from September 2015 have allowed Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective defense activities. These have substantially expanded the scope of Japan’s potential cooperation with other countries—including the United States—in countering the threat from the North.
Pyongyang’s recent threat to fire four missiles into the waters just off the US territory of Guam has raised questions about the ability of Tokyo to use its Aegis-based missile defenses to intercept North Korean missiles fired over Japan. Leaving to one side the important question of the risks of undermining allied deterrence capability by trying (and potentially failing) to intercept North Korean intermediate range missiles, the current debate over a potential role for Japan to protect US military facilities on Guam reflects a much more permissive and flexible attitude on the part of the Abe government towards Japan’s security options.
This type of greater defense pragmatism in combatting the North Korean security threat is a sensible and calibrated response. It fits well within the existing US-Japan alliance framework and also avoids some of the political pitfalls associated with more radical proposals. For many years, commentators have worried that the emergence of a nuclear North Korea would ultimately force Japan to reconsider its long-standing opposition to nuclear weapons, particularly where there were doubts about the reliability of US extended nuclear deterrence or in the face of pressures elsewhere in the region—for example in Seoul—to acquire nuclear weapons.
The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still strong within Japan, and it seems highly improbable that public opinion would tolerate any weakening of Japan’s 50-year-old “three non-nuclear principles” under which the country commits to not manufacturing, possessing, or allowing the transit of nuclear weapons through Japanese territory. Moreover, in the wake of the catastrophic 3/11 combined earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor disasters (at Fukushima), Japanese public opinion remains vigorously opposed to the expansion of Japan’s nuclear capabilities, whether they be for civilian or military purposes. Indeed, Foreign Minister Taro Kono is a strong opponent of nuclear power, and it seems highly unlikely that any leading Japanese politician would make the case for a serious rethink of the country’s non-nuclear policy.
This doesn’t rule out the possibility that some members of Japan’s policy-making circles will be tempted to flirt indirectly with the possibility of nuclearization; merely hinting at the possibility of a re-assessment of this policy might have some indirect, diplomatic benefit. For example, a re-nuclearized Japan would alarm China and might encourage it to put renewed pressure on North Korea—but it seems far-fetched to imagine a situation where the nuclear card could be played by Japan in a manner that would convince Beijing to take action against Pyongyang.
Keeping the door open to dialogue. Japan’s options for dealing with North Korea also include direct talks with the DPRK. Abe’s North Korea policy has long been defined as a combination of “pressure and dialogue” (atsuryoku to taiwa) and the prospect of renewed bilateral talks should not be ruled out, however unlikely they might appear in the short term. In recent weeks, a series of domestic political scandals, along with the party’s dismal performance in the Tokyo metropolitan government elections in June, has seriously dented Abe’s personal popularity, raising doubts about his ability to remain as prime minister beyond September 2018. Not coincidentally, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho appeared to hint to his Japanese counterpart at the possibility of renewed bilateral talks, during a recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Manila in August.
But it’s difficult to discern the motives behind the North Korean pitch. Ri’s gambit may have been aimed at opening up a new channel with the Trump Administration indirectly, via Japan. Equally, it may have reflected a more substantive desire to talk to Tokyo, capitalizing on Abe’s political weakness at home. Journalists visiting Pyongyang in April this year were invited to an unusual press conference in which elderly ethnic Korean women who had returned from Japan to North Korea in the 1950s (as part of an effort to reverse Japan’s colonial-era forced migration policy) spoke movingly about their desire for reconciliation with Japan. The conference was anything but a spontaneous expression of the women’s wishes, and Pyongyang’s willingness to organize such a meeting suggests that the North may be keen to open the door to improved relations with Japan.
Full-blown normalization between Japan and North Korea would ultimately involve some form of financial settlement to offset the experience of the colonial period, comparable to that reached between Seoul and Tokyo in 1965. By some projections this could deliver a compensation package to the North of anywhere between $5 billion and $10 billion—a sizeable amount for the relatively weak North Korean economy. However far-fetched and risky this might seem, a politically vulnerable Prime Minister Abe might be tempted to capitalize on Japan’s multifaceted relationship with the North to reduce Japan’s defense vulnerabilities and limit its dependency on the United States, while seizing an unexpected diplomatic prize that would dramatically boost his political standing at home. It would be a monumental shift, not quite a Richard Nixon going to China moment, but certainly a bold and radical diplomatic about-face for Japan‘s conservative prime minister.
It would not be the first time that a leader turns to foreign affairs as a distraction in the face of declining domestic support, and it could prove a tempting option for Abe. Given growing fears that the rhetorical war of words between Trump and Kim may be heightening the risk of conflict in Korea (albeit more through miscalculation than design), keeping the door open to dialogue seems a sensible option. In Seoul, President Moon Jae-in is also keen to find an opportunity to talk to the North, and Abe should be exploring opportunities for coordination with his South Korean counterpart to encourage such an approach. None of this should minimize the importance of maintaining strong military deterrence capabilities and tighter economic sanctions. But the stakes in the region—not least the thousands or even of millions of lives that would be lost if war were to break out—are too high not to explore this opportunity seriously.