Sympathy for Japan

In the midst of the relief that has greeted North Korea’s decision to return to the six-party talks, it is important to remember — as this editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun does (link in Japanese) — that Japan cannot relax just because the six-party talks are set to resume.

Of the powers participating in the talks, Japan alone among them feels uniquely threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development programs. The US fear is a hypothetical fear — that North Korea might pass its nuclear weapons or material to terrorist groups. Japan’s fear is of a very clear, imminently present danger: of a nearby, belligerent North Korea that might be tempted to turn its weapons on Japan.

Think this might be unreasonable?

First, look at a map to see how close North Korea is to Japan. Then, look at the webpage of the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications for statistics on Japanese population density. In Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures (Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa), the population density is greater than 1,000 persons per square kilometer, with a population density of 5,748 persons per square kilometer in Tokyo Prefecture itself. Moreover, consider that in 2000 44.2% of Japan’s 128 million people lived in three metropolitan areas (defined as being within a radius of fifty kilometers from the city center): Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. These three areas total only about six percent of the country’s land mass.

That is a country that is extremely vulnerable to weapons of mass destruction.

Beyond geography and demographics, North Korea has a history of provocative acts against Japan, most notably its abductions of Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s — which it didn’t admit to doing until 2002. The abduction revelations made the North Korean threat comprehensible to the Japanese public on an individual level, and, together with the anxiety that followed the 1998 Taepodong launch over Japan, contributed to rising Japanese fears of North Korea.

Of course, just because Kim Jong Il has nuclear weapons does not mean that he will wake up one morning and send a few missiles in Japan’s direction. For starters, it is not known whether North Korea is capable of miniaturizing nuclear weapons so as to be able to mount them on missiles. (For more on the technical background on the North Korean nuclear test and the miniaturization question, see this conversation between Dr. Siegfried Hecker, formerly at Los Alamos and currently a visiting fellow at Stanford, and Stanford’s Dr. Gi-Wook Shin.) But even with the technical capability, if it were to do so, North Korea would face immediate retaliation by the US. But Japan cannot discount the possibility, particularly if Kim comes to feel he has nothing to lose.

So now with North Korea returning to the six-party talks, Japan is in a tough situation. The Abe Cabinet was adamant that North Korea fulfill certain conditions before being readmitted to the talks, but now it will have to accept North Korea’s unconditional return lest Japan be isolated among the region’s powers.

The only options for Japan at present are, as the Yomiuri editorial concludes, to stick close to the US, demand enforcement of the UN sanctions, strengthen the alliance to ensure the reliability of the US deterrent, and hope that somehow China acts to ease Kim out of power.

Hardly an enviable position.

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